PETERSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — Three local residents are grateful to be alive after a harrowing water rescue along the Appomattox River on Sunday.
Amber Affelet and her fiancé, Matt Bucciarelli, said that they were canoeing with their friend, Matt Caudle, around noon, when they were flipped into the water.
“The current was really strong,” Caudle said. “We were trying to make the canoe straight to go down the little dip, but we didn’t make it. So we went down it sideways and we lost our balance.”
Having gotten into the water near the Brasfield Dam at the John J. Radcliffe Appomattox River Conservation Area, the group found themselves approaching another dam, closer to Grape Island.
“We flipped from the canoe. At first, we were trying to get the canoe, maybe try and pull it to the other side or something. But the current was too strong,” Caudle said. “We ended up having to let go of the boat.”
Caudle said that his leg got caught under a log, as the current pushed and pulled his body in two different directions. Meanwhile, Affelet said she and Bucciarelli managed to hold onto a rock in the water.
“My fiancé somehow got really lucky, and if he didn’t save me, I would’ve died,” Affelet said. “He pulled me out of the current. I blacked out.”
Caudle said that it took everything he had to pull himself on top of the dam and climb out of the water. With an injured leg, he made his way along the river bank, looking for someone who might be able to call for help.
“I climbed up onto the dam, on the wall. I saw some guy randomly. Thank God he was fishing right there,” Caudle said. “He tried to get a tree branch or something, but there was nothing he could do. So eventually, we just got him to call 9-1-1.”
Affelet said that she and Bucciarelli were in the water waiting for a rescue team for about an hour. She remembered the conditions being so rough that even first responders had difficulties making their way to the pair out in the water.
“They had the dive team boat come and tie themselves to a tree, and then my fiancé helped me and threw me from the rock into one of the rescuers’ arms in the dive team boat, and then he jumped in after me,” Affelet said. “It was really hard for them to even get there and help us. They call it the washing machine, so if someone goes in there, there’s no way out.”
Affelet said she cried tears of joy when the Chesterfield County Fire and EMS’ water rescue team reached them in the water.
“We learned after how dangerous it is,” she said. “People shouldn’t be in this water right now at all, even if they’re experienced.”
Affelet, Bucciarelli and Caudle said that they were all wearing life jackets when the canoe flipped, and that they might not be alive if that weren’t the case.
“I’ve always had a fear of drowning. I almost did in third grade, and then again yesterday. But I love the water, so I just will make sure to check currents, weather, the tide, all of it,” Affelet said.
The group said that they had a dry box with their phones inside, which were lost when the canoe tipped. Affelet said that she has tried calling her phone and it still rings, but her fiancé’s phone does not. The phones are iPhone 12 Pro Max. The couple is hopeful that they will be found and returned.
“Life is fragile,” Affelet said. “Be thankful for every day, even if you know what you’re doing.”