Park official, rafter share dangers of rafting after Wright-Patt colonel dies of suspected drowning

ANSTED, WEST VIRGINIA — What was supposed to be a fun family vacation in West Virginia turned deadly for an Air Force colonel stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Colonel John Catoe, 46, a squadron commander of the 88th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron was identified as the victim of a suspected drowning at the New River Gorge National Park and Reserve, according to a media release.

The incident happened Monday afternoon at the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve near Ansted, West Virginia, located about 50 miles southeast of Charleston, West Virginia.

Catoe fell out of a boat on a Class 4 rapid called “Stairsteps” on the lower Gauley River. His body was later recovered and he was pronounced dead, a spokesperson said.

Jesse McPherson, of Miamisburg, said he witnessed firsthand how dangerous the rapids could be the day before Catoe’s death.

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From Labor Day until mid-October is when thrill seekers tend to be on the river because the rapids are intense, as the water from above the dam is released, according to experts.

McPherson is an experienced white-water rafter. He said the day he was on the water, a day before Catoe’s death, it was the most difficult rafting he had ever done.

“Because of the weather and the hurricane down in Florida, the water levels were really high,” he said.

He advised for beginners to start on an easier river like the Miami River and to always trust your guide.

Dave Bieri, district supervisor of New River Gorge, confirmed the dangers of the Gauley River.

“The Gauley River is much more of a technical river and we have had some fatalities on the river with people that were rafting and wearing a life jack and doing everything right, unfortunately,” Bieri said.

The incident is being investigated as a presumed drowning however Catoe’s death was still under investigation by a medical examiner, a spokesperson for the National Park confirmed to News Center 7.

A memorial service has been planned for Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Wright-Patterson Club on Area A at the base.