ANDERSON — The White River was starting to swell out of its riverbed early Thursday morning as a rescue boat labored through the murky, caramel colored waters.
Anderson Fire Department Chief Dave Cravens stood on the bank at River Bend Park, straining to look up and down the river for any signs of a missing teenager who was separated from his grandfather while kayaking.
Philip Rector, 64, and his 15-year-old grandson, Matthew Rudig, both of Elwood, were on the White River when Rector overturned his kayak in the fast moving water just before 10 a.m.
Rector pulled himself out of the water and went to a nearby gas station to call 911 and report his grandson was still on the flooded river.
Cravens and other firefighters stationed themselves at intervals along the river to watch for the teenage kayaker.
“Boat one, we are at Madison Avenue and we haven’t seen anything,” someone said on an emergency radio.
Tense seconds passed.
“Did he have a life jacket on?” Cravens asked.
“No,” a rescue worker said.
For more than an hour the Anderson Fire Department, Anderson police and Madison County sheriff’s deputies searched for Matthew.
He was located about a mile downstream walking on Northshore Boulevard near Grandview Golf Course after pulling his kayak from the White River.
The first thing Philip Rector said when he saw his 15-year-old grandson was “thank God.”
“Me and him is pretty close,” Rector said Thursday afternoon.
Rector said he was on vacation and Matthew was out of school so the two decided to go kayaking. He said when they got to the park near the Broadway Bridge he noticed the river was flooded and “hindsight is better than foresight.”
As they traveled down the river, Rector said he lost sight of his grandson and when he tried to turn his kayak around to look for Matthew his kayak flipped over.
“He was behind me, now he’s not behind me, and the current is pretty swift,” Rector said, recalling the moments before he ended up in the water.
Matthew had attempted to save his grandfather, but Rector told him not to stop because he feared the teenager would also end up in the river.
“It’s probably swifter than we should have gotten into, but we did,” Rector said. “I tried to get mine turned around so I could see if I could see him and I flipped it.”
Making his way to a log jam, Rector said he was finally able to get out of the water, but he was unsure what had happened to his grandson.
Matthew called his father, Mathew Rudig, as he was pulling the kayak out of the river.
“I don’t think Matthew ever got into the water until he got to the shore,” said Rudig.
Rudig said he did not know people were looking for his son and his fears were that they would have to rescue his stepfather.
“I knew Matthew was OK, but Phil didn’t have a phone,” he said. “His phone went on down the river in the kayak.”
Rudig said his son used the GPS on his phone to find his way to the nearest road.
“He said ‘Papaw got spilled over in the drink and I’m pulling the kayak up on the bank now and I’m not sure how far I’m going to be able to drag it,’” Rudig said. “Obviously you are picturing the Grand Canyon rapids when something bad happens and I’m thinking we had a 65-year-old stuck in the water.”
Cravens said Rector did the right thing by calling for help as soon as he got out of the water. He said response times can be the difference between life and death in emergencies.
“Know your limits,” he said. “With the water that high, they had to know it was dangerous and they didn’t have their life jackets on. It doesn’t matter how good of a swimmer you are if you don’t have that life jacket on. They could have hit their head on a limb or anything.”
Cravens said last year they had three or four water rescues and Thursday’s incident was the third time they were called out this year. The other two calls were recovery efforts.
He said if a boating accident happens, try to remain calm.
“Don’t panic and try to keep your head above water,” he said.
Rector said he and his grandson were lucky.
“Not a scratch on me or anything of the kind,” he said. “They only thing I got was a little anxiety when I thought I lost him.”
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