Local pro kayaker details heroic effort to rescue missing kayaker found alive at Kanawha Falls

FAYETTE COUNTY, WV (WOAY) – It is a story of both the power of social media and also the power of the county’s strong, local whitewater community as kayakers came to the rescue on Sunday night to save the life of a kayaker from Tennessee.

Corey Lilly lives in Fayetteville and is a professional kayaker for Pyranha Kayaks and Immersion Research. For him, it was a combination of a gut feeling and years of experience when he saw the photo posted on a Facebook page of a floating empty kayak in the Kanawha Falls area.

The Fayette County Sheriff’s Department, DNR officers and swift water rescue teams made up of local firefighters initially responded to the 911 call at around 6 p.m. once the empty kayak and empty Tennessee vehicle were spotted at the Kanawha Falls public access space.

Once the search and rescue teams called it a night at around 10 p.m., Lilly went with his gut and called on other kayakers, Stephen Wright and Paul Griffin, to check a specific pocket in the falls. 

“Knowing that with my extensive background of the area and paddling the falls hundreds of times, I knew that would be easily overlooked by search and rescue, and that’s somewhere that I wanted to check immediately, and that’s exactly where he was,” Lilly said. 

Sam Davis was a lone kayaker from Tennessee and after he swam out of his kayak while running the falls reportedly around 6 p.m., he was able to wedge himself on the ledge behind the curtain of the falls.

That is where the group of kayakers found him as they heard him yelling for help against the rush of the falls when they arrived and paddled toward him at around 10 p.m.

“At that point we were like, ‘He’s alive. He’s stable. And we need to make the best strategic action that is going to get this done swiftly and quickly,’” Lilly said. 

Lilly called for more help from the kayaking community after attempting to talk to Davis by paddling to an eddy. The group knew then they would have to lift him out from above.

More local kayakers came, and they were able to send a rope in from above which Davis clipped to his harness to be lifted out.

Lilly said they had one shot to get it right, and that’s exactly what happened.

From there, it was all cheers, celebration and quick movement to get Davis into an ambulance.

Lilly says he hopes this will create a conversation about the need for inclusion of the local kayaking community in swift water rescue calls as he is now in talks with DNR to assemble an organized team to respond to these types of calls.

“In moving forward, I think what you’re going to see is I think a closer bond and a relationship between the DNR, the whitewater community and the whitewater commission I hope,” Natural Resource Police Captain Woodrow Brogan III said. 

Captain Brogan says that night, search and rescue was missing a piece of information that Lilly and his crew were able to provide and had the needed skillset to execute.

For Lilly, he says in the whitewater community, lending a helping hand, paddle, or rope to an individual or a community in need is simply second nature. 

“Well, when you have knowledge and you have the skillset to be able to do something and make a genuine impact on your community, it’s just human nature or maybe I should say the West Virginia nature to stand up and do something about it,” Lilly said. 

After spending nearly eight hours behind the waterfall, Sam Davis is expected to make a full recovery.

Anna Saunders
Anna Saunders is a weekend reporter for WOAY. With a diploma from Princeton Senior High School and a mother from Fayette County, she is no stranger to the area. She received a degree in Media Arts and Design from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and wanted to return home to start her career as a reporter.