TAMPA – Search dogs and underwater cameras were used Tuesday in an effort to find the body of a Tampa man who died last week during a whitewater rafting tour in South Carolina.
Crews have not been able to recover the body of Thomas Hill for five days because of bad weather, equipment issues and the swift currents of the Chattooga River.
On Tuesday, helicopters and firefighters joined the search for Hill, 51, who was on a company retreat hosted by his employer, Sherwin-Williams, when he fell out of a raft near a section of rapids known as Sock-em Dog, authorities said.
About 120 Sherwin-Williams employees were at the retreat and went rafting on June 19, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Michelle Burnett. She said six people were on Hill’s raft when he and three others fell out.
Hill, who lived in New Tampa and had been a sales manager for Sherwin-Williams for 27 years, was trapped in an undercurrent and never resurfaced, Burnett said.
Guides from Southeastern Expeditions, which led the rafting tour, tried to rescue Hill several times, authorities said.
Hill’s body was found on Friday, but the churning waters of the Chattooga foiled the attempts of rescue crews trying to retrieve it, Burnett said.
“It’s one thing to raft down a river and another thing to set up a platform and other equipment in it,” she said.
When crews went back to the same location Saturday, the current had moved Hill’s body. Crews have been trying to find his body ever since.
On Sunday, the search was halted because of equipment problems and the potential for storms in the area, which is near Long Creek, S.C.
The search continued Monday without success and resumed about 7:45 a.m. Tuesday. More than 240 searchers and support personnel have worked to find Hill’s body, said Scott Loftis, incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service. Two different search dogs will be brought in today; earlier search dogs had indicated Hill’s body was still in the area.
“Any future options will be dictated by the same things we face every day – the river’s flow levels and the safety of our responders,” Loftis said in the Forest Service’s Tuesday evening update. “We’re always at the mercy of the river flowing downhill.”
The accident occurred in a stretch of the Chattooga called Five Falls, Burnett said, which has Class Four and Class Five rapids.
“It’s called Five Falls because it has five rapids in quick succession,” she said.
Rapids are graded in difficulty from one to six, with one requiring basic skills. Class Four has medium-sized waves and the possibility of a large drop while Class Five has large waves, rocks and other hazards, and is recommended for people with advanced whitewater rafting experience.
Class Six is considered too dangerous to traverse.
Southeastern Expeditions said it took all precautions before guides were cleared to raft down the river by the U.S. Forest Service.
A spokesman for Sherwin-Williams declined to comment, but issued a statement from the company.
“The Sherwin-Williams family is deeply saddened and mourns the loss of Tom Hill,” officials from the Ohio-based company said. “Tom will be greatly missed. Our condolences and prayers go out to Tom’s wife Linda and their four children during their time of mourning.”