CANAJOHARIE — Emergency responders rescued 13 people Wednesday night after flash flooding in Canajoharie Creek stranded several groups who were enjoying the river that afternoon.
Canajoharie Police Chief Bryan MacFadden said a family of six was congregating at one of the creek’s pools adjacent to Mill Street when a surge of water carried them downstream.
“A young boy ran on Mill Street and pounded on the door of a firefighter at 6:15 p.m.,” MacFadden said. “He just said the rest of his family had been swept down to the other side of the river.”
“Where they were, it’s normally a placid pool, and they said a wall of water just came down over them,” MacFadden added.
He said the creek often rises during heavy rainfall, but never in his memory has it risen as fast as it did Wednesday night.
“We don’t normally have a wall of water come up; they were sitting on the rocks and were literally washed away,” he said.
A second group comprising a father and two daughters were on the west side of the creek when the flood hit. They retreated to high ground and called 911, telling dispatchers they were stranded. Emergency responders reached the group using a trail network known to the Canajoharie Fire Department, and with minimal rope work, they were able to extract the family.
Four others were on the east side of the creek, in a gorge, when the flash flood hit. They also retreated to high ground but were trapped against a 100-foot cliff and could not get out of the gorge.
“That’s where the rope rescue came in, and that’s what took a long time,” MacFadden said.
Ropes crews reached the group through the Canajoharie Falls Cemetery.
The escarpment, he added, was made up of loose shale, and rescue crews had to be careful not to knock rocks loose onto the group below. Rescuers were staged in Wintergreen Park until 1:30 a.m. Thursday and included teams from the Canajoharie Fire Department and the Schoharie County rope team.
“We had a lot of volunteers from several different rope teams,” MacFadden said. “They worked in combination and very well in sync to get everyone out with no injuries.”
Montgomery County Emergency Management Coordinator Jeff Smith said he doesn’t remember anyone being caught in the creek bed during a flash flooding event before Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, in this day and age, any creek or stream is prone to flash flooding with the way our weather patterns have been,” he said. “I don’t recall an incident where people were in the creek when something like that has happened, but I imagine flash floods have happened in the creek before with these concentrated rain events we’ve been getting.”
Smith said it's important for people who are enjoying the region's lakes, creeks and streams to be aware of the potential for flash flooding and other hazards.
He added that residents can download Montgomery County’s smartphone app that sends out flash flood warnings and other alerts. The free app, available for Android and iPhone, can be found by searching “Montgomery County Emergency Management New York” in the app marketplace.
There are also signs at Wintergreen Park warning of flood dangers and of the dangers posed by the waterfalls, which are closed to the public. A cable is strung across the river at the base of the falls warning people in English and Spanish to stay away or risk a $250 trespassing fine.
MacFadden said two drownings have occurred at the falls over the past 20 years, as well as a couple of injuries.
Smith said Montgomery County gets runoff from all the surrounding counties, including Fulton, Herkimer, Otsego, Schoharie and Saratoga counties, which can often lead to flash flooding — especially when the water table is saturated as it currently is.
“[Wednesday] night was a perfect storm because we had multiple groups in different locations,” Smith said. “Usually [the water level] comes up gradually, and we’re able to monitor it, but this was a unique situation.”
Smith said more than a dozen emergency crews responded to Canajoharie on Wednesday night, and that he’s never seen that level of cooperation on such a large-scale rescue operation.
“It's not very often you can get that many agencies and ideas and moving parts to work together and get everyone out without any injuries; I’m very proud of the work the men and women did,” Smith said.
Rescue crews and fire departments from Canajoharie, Schoharie, Fort Plain, Ames and the town of Mohawk responded, in addition to the Canajoharie Police Department, state police and Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.