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Big Float turns into a big flap

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From world record attempt to rescue attempt, Rome’s Big Float on Saturday started with the expectation of making history and ended with numerous rescue boats, including the Roman Holiday, hitting the water to pull floaters, tubes and belongings out of the swift flowing waters at the confluence.

Despite requests from officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Rome-Floyd County Fire Department to cancel the float, organizers with Coosa River Basin Initiative made the call to go ahead. However, that call resulted in the inability of floaters to get out of the water at Unity Point, where the stronger flow of the Oostanaula River was pushing people to the outside bank.

"It was the wrong call, but we thought we had it covered,” said Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, the executive director and riverkeeper.

There was a rope running from the bank at the confluence that floaters were supposed to grab on to and pull themselves to shore — a method tested out earlier this week, he said.

"We tried to think of every scenario and try to come up with solutions and we just missed this one,” he said, pointing to the underestimation of the river’s current, which picked up over night.

"In the end that was the mess up. (It) was our blind spot.”

Those on rescue boats, one of which Demonbreun-Chapman was on, then began pulling floaters onboard and those on shore pulled people on to the Heritage Park boat dock. Around 3 p.m., after numerous trips up and down the river, a DNR ranger told organizers anyone who could be physically seen was off the river.

“These people don’t know how close they came to dying today,” said Rick Dempsey, the owner of River Ratz, which brought 40 tubes for the float, and former state DNR law enforcement ranger, who helped pull floaters onto the dock.

Dempsey said he called CRBI officials around 7:30 a.m. to tell them not to put people in the river. His own company, as well as many across Northwest Georgia, was closed to those wishing to do so, due to river levels and flow after days of rain over the last week.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Etowah River was flowing at 6,000 cubic feet per second and the Oostanaula at 11,000 cubic feet per second on Saturday. Ben Cunningham, a Georgia DNR ranger assigned to Floyd County, said the flow of the Etowah was three times more than the normal for this time of year.

The record

The aim was to set a new Guinness World Record for the longest line of water inflatables as part of the 6-mile float trip, and the numbers were there to do so, with an estimated 489 tubers. But the goal fell short not long after the initial tubers were launched onto the Etowah from Dixon Landing at Grizzard Park around 11 a.m.

The rope broke free from a group of more than 100 tubers, and they were cast off from the rest of the participants waiting at the boat launch. And just like that, the attempt was quashed — the planned survey of the line and record-marking drone footage gone down the river.

"We learned a good way on how to not set a world record," said Demonbreun-Chapman.

Firefighters on the department’s rescue boat coming up river to drop off a participant whose tube popped told Demonbreun-Chapman, who was unspooling the rope, that they had to do something to get the line out into the middle of the river because floaters were banging up against the river bank. Shortly after that, the rope ran out and tubers were sent out individually.

But beyond the launch and departing with the record attempt, the float went fairly smoothly, participants said. Until it came time to get out, when the situation turned potentially disastrous, prompting a call to 911 and the response of an entire fire battalion and Floyd EMS personnel.

“That’s the next part of this saga,” a firefighter called out over the scanner around 2:30 p.m., referencing the lost belongings from tipped over tubes and the inflatables themselves which personnel as well as rental company workers were trying to track down.

"I hate that such a celebratory event ended on this note,” said Demonbreun-Chapman, adding that a lost and found will be set up at their office at 5 Broad St.

He along with CRBI Board President Nina Lovel expressed their immense gratitude in the assistance from first responders and all who lent a helping hand. They also extended their thanks to the participants who helped in bringing in $25,000 for the organization’s efforts.