Stranded Haw River kayakers describe frightening ordeal

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A young couple rescued describes their harrowing ordeal.

A young couple is safe after being stranded for hours on the Haw River.

It happened Sunday afternoon after the couple decided to go kayaking. Gina Wright said it was about 4:30 p.m. when she got into trouble as the current picked up.

"I got stuck in between some rocks, my boat, my kayak started filling up and that's when I flipped and the current took me down to a rock and I just latched on to the rock," said the 19-year-old Wright.

When her boyfriend, Patrick Pugh, saw she was in trouble he tried to help, but ended up in trouble himself.

"I went to the side and crashed into this little cove so that I could stop but I lost my paddle doing that," Pugh said. "I couldn't get to her because there was a current, there were two rocks in between us, there was nothing I could do, I could barely hear her, I was so scared."

Related: Teen dies after being pulled from Haw River

At that point, he lost his paddle and his own kayak and was hanging onto a tree, still too far from land, but thankfully, still with his cell phone.

"I'm stuck, I'm on a tree. I can't get to the land. I lost my paddle and my girlfriend is sitting on a rock in the middle of the rapids," said Pugh in his 911 call as he and Wright were hanging on to what they could in the river, somewhere between US-64 and 15-501.

Rescue workers could see them from a helicopter but couldn't reach them for some time because of the dense woods. Officials say they weren't believed to be in any immediate danger.

"Once they got a visual on us they couldn't get to us so they sent two people from the fire department, they waded out to us," said Pugh.

He said the firefighters tried to keep them warm and calmed them down as they waited for air rescue. This was just after 8 p.m.

On top of being in the water, it started to get dark and rain and fog moved in, making the rescue effort even harder. Still, the helicopter finally managed to send down ropes and rescuers to lift them out of the water.

Wright was airlifted first. It took longer to bring Pugh up because he was under a tree so they had trouble dropping down to him. Then finally they did.

"He said hold on to me. I just held on to him closed my eyes and prayed," Pugh said.

When Pugh was taken up, he and the rescuer had to go through tree branches so he did suffer numerous scratches, but that was the worst of any injuries.

"We just kept hitting branch after branch," Pugh said.

It was 11 p.m. by the time the two were out of the water.

Crews from Apex FD, South Orange Rescue, Chatham County Sheriff's Department, Pittsboro Police Department, First Health of the Carolina's, SHP Helicopter and rescue techs from HART, local Emergency Management and State Emergency Management all responded to the rescue call. At one time, 40 first responders were involved in the effort, according to Chatham County Emergency Management.

Through tears Pugh talked about being worried that he wouldn't survive to be with his girlfriend again. He and Wright say they are so thankful for the all the rescue crews who didn't stop until they were safe out of the water.

They're especially thankful to the two North Chatham County firefighters who waded in the water to wait with them. Crews could only airlift one person at a time. By the time Pugh and Wright were pulled out, the helicopter needed to be refueled. So the two firefighters had to wait as fellow rescuers were finally able to get a rescue boat to them, through the fog. That took another two hours.

When asked if they plan to ever kayak again, Wright shook her head no, but Pugh said he definitely plans to kayak the Haw River again.

To do that, he'll need a new kayak. He said rescue workers told him his brand new kayak could either already be on Jordan Lake or end up all the way in Wilmington.

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