Sink or Swim? Not on TVA's Watch!

It was a normal Tuesday morning on Nov. 12 for TVA Biologist John Justice and his crew as they prepared to monitor the fish habitat surrounding Boone Dam. The extreme temperatures and snow dusting the hull were the only things out of the ordinary.


While launching their boat, Justice and the team were approached by a group of paramedics asking them to help rescue a man who had been stranded in a sinking pontoon since the night before. Emergency medical services (EMS) had received the anonymous call at 8:30 that morning, and their boat was on the way, but with the help of the TVA employees, they knew they could reach him sooner.

“Helping people on the reservoir is nothing new for us, so we didn’t really think much about it,” Justice said. “We just said ‘we’re here to help,’ and they climbed in with us.”

The elderly boater had hit a rock — puncturing one of the craft’s pontoons — and the vessel started to sink. He used the electric trolling motor in an attempt to return to dock, but eventually the front end of the boat submerged, leaving him alone, teetering in the middle of the reservoir. 

“He didn’t have a cell phone to call for help himself, or even enough clothes to keep him warm and dry,” said TVA Natural Resources Senior Specialist Shannon O’Quinn. “All he could do was stay on the upright side of the boat and try to make it back as best as he could.”

According to Justice, the man appeared to be in the early stages of hypothermia when they approached. He was very confused and couldn’t stand upright, so EMS had to help him into the TVA boat and back onto the dock before they could attend to his needs.  

“Justice, O’Quinn, Sara Mawhinney, Richard Fox and Daniel Sain, they’re not just one-time heroes, they’re heroes every day,” said Dennis Baxter, River & Reservoir Compliance manager. “They rescue two to three boaters a year, and they’re prepared to serve whenever they’re in the right place at the right time.”    

Though the rescue was a success and the man recovered, the biologists couldn’t stress enough the importance of safety on the water.

“Boating is a dangerous activity if you’re not prepared,” Justice said. “Wintertime is not the best time to get out on the water by yourself. If you do, you need to make sure that your equipment is working properly and that you’re ready for anything that may come your way.”

O’Quinn agreed.

“Thankfully no one got seriously hurt, but this situation could have ended a lot differently,” he said. “Always take warm clothes — like a blanket, coat or rain jacket, a cell phone or other way of contacting help and a life jacket whenever you’re boating. Also, don’t be ashamed to ask for help when you need it.”