‘Inadequate planning’ led to SAR volunteer’s death, report says

Coroner’s inquest into Sheilah Sweatman’s 2011 death in Goat River begins Monday in Nelson. 

  • Nov. 19, 2012 3:00 p.m.

Sheilah Sweatman

Greg Nesteroff/Nelson Star

WorkSafeBC’s investigation into the drowning of a Nelson Search and Rescue volunteer in the Goat River near Creston last year concludes several planning failures contributed to her death.

The 45-page report, finalized a day before the first anniversary of the tragedy and obtained by the Nelson Star through a Freedom of Information request, reveals Sheilah Sweatman, 29, died after her leg became tangled in a steel rigging cable, pulling her from her raft.

Sweatman was trying to attach the cable to a sunken vehicle, later found to contain the body of Lana Chipesia, 23, who went missing several days earlier.

The report says several things went wrong, beginning when the submerged car unexpectedly began to move downstream, taking the raft with it. Somehow the two accidentally became attached by the steel rigging equipment.

The cable soon became an unmanageable hazard to the raft’s crew: as it began to uncoil, it caught Sweatman’s left leg, pulled her off the boat and pinned her colleague in his seat. The second crew member was able to free himself and get a strong grip on Sweatman, but the vehicle’s pull was ultimately too great.

The report says that while the crew was warned to steer clear of the cable, this wasn’t practical since it was on the boat’s floor, near their feet.

“The small area available for the team to store and handle the steel equipment made the chance of accidental contact likely,” the report reads.

The procedure for connecting the vehicle to the tow truck was supposed to ensure the raft was never connected to the tow cable system, but “The close quarters available to the team made it difficult to maintain adequate separation.”

The report also concludes the plan was “inadequate” because it didn’t include any way to rescue someone who got caught in the cable. It depended on caution and self-rescue, but there was no way for someone who became tangled to cut themselves free.

“The control provision for this hazard was that the [raft] team members were to be careful not to put their feet or hands in the coil of the steel cable,” the report read. “There were no other controls and no instructions on how to respond if a team member did become entrapped in a coil.”

After Sweatman landed in the river, a rescue boat and swimmers weren’t able to reach her. There were no tools available to cut the steel cable.

The report said introducing steel rigging into the operation without proper safeguards was contrary to several principles of swift-water rescue certification — although none of the 21 well-trained search members on site objected to its use.

“This oversight in the planning stage precipitated a chain of events that endangered both of the [raft] team members but from which [Sweatman] was ultimately unable to recover,” the report said.

The report ruled out a number of other factors as contributing to the tragedy, including fatigue, hypothermia, training levels, and the presence of video cameras to take footage for a reality TV show. Investigators concluded there was no evidence the cameras — including one on Sweatman’s helmet — affected or influenced anyone involved in the operation.

Most equipment functioned properly, including Sweatman’s lifejacket, dry suit and helmet, as well as the rope and rigging system known as a tension diagonal. Searchers explained Sweatman’s boat, a dual-pontoon sport craft with two seats in the middle, known as a cataraft, was better suited to the task than a power boat.

The report is expected to be entered into evidence during the coroner’s inquest into Sweatman’s death, which begins Monday in Nelson. Sweatman’s father says several parallel investigations by other agencies reached the same broad conclusions.

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