OHIO VALLEY — What was supposed to be a fun day on the water with family and friends took a frightening and tragic turn on Saturday for a group of 14 kayakers on the Hocking River.
The group put their kayaks in the water at the canoe launch at the West State Street Park in Athens, planning to kayak down stream.
Bree Thomas, the sister of late kayaker Steve Lippson, recalled the events of the day leading up to the incident and the days since.
The group had arrived at the launch site around 1 p.m., unloaded the kayaks, and members of the group took the vehicles to the spot they planned to exit the river.
Thomas said the kids in the group, with their life jackets on, played in the water at the base of the launch ramp while they waited for the rest of the group to return.
With the group all together and ready to put in the water, Thomas said she was the first to put in, followed by two of her sons and then the others, Lippson and his son, Zander, were last to put in.
It was just 4 minutes later that the plans for a fun outing took a scary turn.
After putting in the water and leaving the launch point, there was a sign on a railroad bridge that warned of the falls ahead. By then it was too late to exit the water.
The group quickly worked to pull the kayaks to the shore, but 8-year-old Scotty Thomas, Bree’s son, was swept by the current over the falls.
“You could not see over the falls,” Thomas recalled. She said that you could see him go over and then nothing, no way to see where he was.
Kayakers Josh and Serena Larsen quickly followed Scotty over the falls in an attempt to pull him to safety. Scotty’s father, Cliff Thomas, also followed over the falls.While the boy was wearing a life jacket, there was still concern as to whether it could have come off in the accident of if he could have been pulled under the water.
Bree Thomas was able to climb from her kayak, up the hill behind White’s Mill and go around the building to the lower side of the falls. By the time she got to where she could see Scotty, he was safely on the shore with Serena Larsen.
Lippson had been at the top of the falls and had helped to push one of the other kayakers to the shore and out of the current.
By pushing a kayak in one direction, it pushes the other kayaker in the opposite direction, explained Thomas. When this happened, Lippson, who was sharing the kayak with his son, was pushed out into the current which he was unable to paddle out of.
Unable to paddle back toward the shore, Lippson and Zander were swept over the falls.
Bree Thomas recalled hearing the boy screaming and seeing Lippson holding Zander above his head and out of the current. She put on her son’s life jacket and swam into the water to help rescue Zander. With Zander holding tight to her, Thomas tried to swim out of the vortex created by the falls, but was having a hard time doing so. Thomas was able to get Zander to a floating log.
Two Athens Police Officers, along with Cliff Thomas, helped to reach out to get Zander who had made it to a floating log. The group was then able to assist Bree Thomas with getting out of the water as well.
The officers, Thomas noted, dropped their duty belts and went right into the water to assist her and Zander.
Thomas said that her focus had been on getting her nephew out of the water, and that when she looked around she could no longer see her brother.
Lippson was able to save his son from the situation, but ultimately went under the water.
A search of the area began immediately, with Lippson’s body located on Tuesday morning approximately 200 yards from the falls near OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital.
The group of 14, including five children, included multiple experienced kayakers, as well as four who were “first-timers,” said Thomas. None of the first-timers went over the falls. Among the group were individuals who are trained first responders.
Lippson was one of the experienced kayakers and also a good swimmer, according to Thomas. Lippson, along with Cliff Thomas, were typically charged with planning the route for the group’s kayaking trips, just as they had done for the one on Saturday.
Despite the planning, they were not aware of the falls being so close to the put in site.
Thomas said that it was not until the group had placed all of the kayaks in the water and began to move downstream that they saw the sign for the falls ahead. There is no sign at the put in ramp regarding the falls, just a sign about the access point project completion. In speaking with ODNR following the incident, Thomas said that ODNR will be looking to place a sign at the access point making it more visible to kayakers.
Kayaking over falls was not new for Lippson, Thomas or some of the others in the group as they have often kayaked in the Cora Mill area in Gallia County. Thomas said that they have a specific plan for kayaking around the falls to ensure the safety of all involved.
Asked what she would want others to know and remember about her brother, Thomas said, “He was a great dad. His son was his world.”
“He was a brother, son, friend, loved concerts and music, the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins, the number 13, food, and his native Maryland,” said Thomas.
Lippson could be seen on the sidelines of many youth sporting events in the area, whether at the baseball field or helping to coach football.
“He was always at the kids’ games. He had a nickname for them all (the kids),” said Thomas of her brother not only supporting his own son and nephews, but their teammates and friends as well.
“He cheered with his whole being for every child,” said Thomas. “He was proud of each and every one of them — his son, his nephews, their friends.”
Thomas expressed her gratitude to all of those who assisted in the emergency response, the search or in any way assisted the family during the difficult time, particularly the following agencies, businesses and individuals: The Athens Fire Department, Athens Police Department, Ohio Department of Natural Rsources, Rome Twp. Volunteer Fire Department Dive Team, Athens County EMA and EMS, and the Wellston and Portsmouth Fire Departments. Athens Fire Chief Robert Rymer, ONDR Investigator Charles Carlson, divers Chris Lowery and Chris Thoroughman, individuals with the Chancey-Dover Volunteer Fire Department, Athens Kroger, Shawna Stump State Farm Insurance, Josh Thomas and Brenen’s Coffee, the owners of White’s Mill, the Athens Mayor and the wives of the Athens Fire Department.
“The Athens and Meigs County communities have been very supportive during this time and it is very much appreciated,” noted Thomas. From complete strangers to long-time friends, Thomas said the outpouring of support has meant a great deal to the family as they grieve.
Visitation will be held from 5-7 p.m. on Friday, July 14 at Anderson McDaniel Funeral Home in Pomeroy, with service directly following. A memorial service in Maryland will be announced at a later time.
An account has been set up at Home National Bank to assist the Lippson family.