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Two Escape Death In Dam Mishap

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Two escape death in dam mishap

By John Barton

An electrical malfunction caused floodgates of Argo Dam to open unexpectedly Saturday afternoon, and two persons nearly drowned when their canoe was sucked through the dam by the sudden surge of water.

Downstream from Argo Park, other canoes capsized and their occupants were dunked into the Huron River.

The rapid rise in water levels increased the speed of the current, and transformed serene holiday canoe rides on the usually placid river into whitewater adventures. Farther downstream, Island Park, a favorite site for Fourth of July picnics, was left under water.

Names of the two persons who were swept through the gates were not available, but one of them, a woman, was taken to University Hospital for observation, authorities said. Her male companion reportedly reached out as he floated past a tree branch and pulled himself to safety.

No serious injuries were reported to others who were dumped into the river as a result of the sudden opening of the dam's floodgates shortly before 3 p.m.

“PEOPLE OUT THERE formed human chains and were pulling people out of the water and helping them to shore," said Ann Arbor Police Staff Sgt. Jan Suomala. “There were a lot of policemen and firemen at the scene who got their feet wet, but fortunately none of the people who fell in the water was seriously injured.

“All of the officers who were out at the scene remarked on what a great job the people on shore did in getting themselves organized and helping. They apparently responded extremely well to an emergency situation.”

The floodgates on all four of Ann Arbor’s city-owned dams are controlled by sophisticated electrical switches that monitor water levels and adjust the river’s flow through the dams.

In recent weeks, according to Wayne H. Abbott Jr., director of the city’s utilities department, there have been problems with the switches, and repairmen have been working on them.

“WE’VE BEEN HAVING some difficulty with the controls,” Abbott explained. “And what happened today was that we got an excessive discharge from Barton (Dam), and that caused the gates on Argo to open.”

Alarms are sounded when water levels are either too high or too low, Abbott said. An alarm went off at Argo, and a water department worker, John Iannelli, was sent to investigate.

“He was there within 10 minutes, but the people in the canoe had already shot through and were on shore. He shut the gates and rushed down to Geddes (Dam) and manually opened it to adjust the flow. The pond at Gallup Park may have risen six inches or so, but nobody there probably even noticed."

When the canoe and its two occupants were sucked through the dam, John Wibalda, who works at the Argo Canoe Livery, witnessed the near-drownings and helped pull the woman passenger ashore.

“A CANOE overturned right in front of the dam, and the two occupants went through the floodgates and floated downriver,” Wibalda said.

“They were in some difficulty for their lives," he added, showing a bit of flair for understatement.

“We dragged the woman ashore and rescued her. I believe the man was able to pull himself out of the water by grabbing a tree branch, but he ended up on the other side of the river from where I was, and I really didn’t see what happened over there.

“Some other canoes that were downstream from the dam overturned, too, but I’m not sure how many there were. People who were on shore were helping get them out of the water.”

ABBOTT SAID the electrical controls at the dam were being worked on after he received complaints of erosion at downriver parks.

“The park department was noticing excessive erosion at Island and Riverside parks,” he said, “and we thought there could have been a problem with the timers that control the flow of the river through the dams. That’s the problem we’ve been working on. But we’ve never experienced anything like this before.

“Tonight we have stabilized water levels. The malfunction in the gates was probably caused by the controls at the dams somehow getting out of balance. Our people are there, and people from the company will be out there tonight to solve the problem.

“You know,” he added after a brief pause, “it’s probably a darn good thing for the people in the canoe that the gates did open. They shot right through the dam and were rescued on the other side.

“If those gates hadn’t opened, the people probably would have been smashed up against the dam. If that had happened, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have gotten out of the water alive.”