Fox River low-head dams 'notoriously deadly,' expert says
Mark Stankus and his wife, Karen, were taking advantage of a beautiful Saturday afternoon with a bike ride along the Fox River when they stopped to sit on a bench by a low-head dam in Geneva.
"It was just a nice day out," the West Chicago resident said. "We were just kind of relaxing, talking, hanging out. There were some guys fishing by the dam, and then there were some guys kayaking."
One kayak, however, looked like it was in trouble.
"These guys were struggling. It was pretty clear," Stankus said.
The situation soon resolved into the alarming reality of an emergency that propelled Stankus off the bench and into the chilly river to try to rescue one of the men, who was drifting downstream. Although that 26-year-old kayaker eventually was saved, the other man in kayak, also 26, was found in the boil in front of the dam by emergency responders and later pronounced dead.
The two men who went over the dam were from a group of six friends from the Bloomington, Ill., area and who had rented three, two-person kayaks for a trip on the river. The four other friends were not injured.
The Kane County coroner's office declined Sunday to identify the man who died.
Stankus, who teaches school in Wheaton, said people along the shore tried giving the kayakers instructions when it became clear they were in trouble, but they went over the dam and were dragged underwater.
"One of them kind of got pushed out and then away from the wall, and then he started floating downstream," Stankus said. "The one gentleman that was sort of floating downstream, he was just kind of flailing a little bit in the water. He seemed confused."
Stankus said he ran downstream, then entered the water trying to reach the man.
"All he needed to do was stand up at that point," he said. "I was trying to yell to him to stand up. The water just kind of carried him right on down."
Eventually, the man was recovered and taken to Delnor Hospital in Geneva, where he was reported to be recovering.
For Ryan Rushton, the owner and operator of Geneva Kayak Center in Yorkville, there are lessons to be drawn from Saturday's accident. The main one, he said, is that "all low-head dams are this hazardous.
"Low head dams are notoriously deadly," said Rushton, whose company used to be located in a building adjacent to the Geneva dam. "So it's always just a matter of time, and that's why there has been a big movement to either remove dams or re-engineer them as whitewater parks."
The low-head dam is built as one uniform piece of concrete that goes across the river. It is constructed in such a way, he said, that objects at the bottom of the dam find it almost impossible to escape the grasp of the recirculating water.
"All the time, when we used to be located in Geneva, we would see inflatable balls, logs, any piece of debris that would float over the dam would be held there for quite a long time," he said. "It's not hard to imagine an incident like this happening."
In educating kayakers, he said, it is important to inform them where the dams are in relation to all the spots where they will portage.
For example, if somebody were launching in St. Charles and paddling to Aurora, they would have to portage dams in St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, Aurora and Montgomery.
They also need to be taught where they need to be when they are paddling the river.
For more information, Rushton recommended kayakers visit the website of the American Canoe Association, www.americancanoe.org.
Stankus said the accident hung a dark cloud over what had been a beautiful Saturday.
"It was a day that was full of sunshine and warmer temperatures and a day to kind of go out and enjoy things," he said. "And their day ended up a disaster."