Hometown Hero: Eagle Scout risks life to save kayaker in peril

Twenty-two-year-old Andrew Warren was drowning. He knew it. He couldn’t do anything about it and figured his number had come up.

He was stuck in a “terminal hydraulic” or hole in the swirling whitewater rapids of Sweetwater Creek, west of Atlanta, his helmeted head banging against boulders and his kayak, while he kept getting sucked under. Losing consciousness and gasping for breath, he could see his desperate friends on the banks, hurling ropes toward him that weren’t quite long enough.

“I’m finished,” he thought. “I was being twirled and bounced around like I was stuck in a big washing machine.”

He knew his four fellow kayakers — all accomplished in the dangerous sport — were trying to save him. Three of them — like him upperclassmen at Georgia Tech —were on the banks, and Oliver Yowell, 17, a high school student from Roswell, had noticed the commotion and paddled upstream for a last ditch rescue effort.

Endangering his own life, he got just close enough to the hydraulic for Warren to grab hold. For his courageous act, Yowell, an Eagle Scout, was awarded the Boy Scouts of America’s Honor Medal With Crossed Palms for putting himself at extreme risk to help another. The medal has been awarded only about four times a year since its inception in 1910.

The young men had set out for a day of fun, following strict rules of kayaking. They scouted the river, even made emergency plans in case something went wrong.

“Once I dropped into this hydraulic, the water was so high, I wasn’t able to keep my head out of the water,” Warren said. “I was just barely out of reach of the ropes they were throwing from both sides. I was starting to go unconscious.”

Then, Yowell, at a strapping 6 feet and three inches tall, managed to paddle his kayak just close enough to the hole for Warren to grab hold.

“I wouldn’t be here if not for Oliver,” Warren said.

Yowell, a certified lifeguard and kayaking instructor, working this summer at the Robert Woodruff Scout Reservation, said he knew a rescue try would be dangerous.

Warren, who has since graduated from Tech and is headed to medical school, said Yowell reached him just in time.

Charles “Chip” Albo, a certified expert whitewater kayaker, said Yowell “likely saved our friend’s life…risking his own safety in the process.” What Yowell did “is extremely difficult,” he said.

Fellow kayaker Mark Petell said the “hole was so violent that it was dragging and holding” Warren under.

“Oliver demonstrated a great deal of bravery by paddling right up to the hole and allowing a drowning friend to grab his boat,” Petell said. “He did so without hesitation and at extremely high risk to his own life.”

Yowell’s parents, Maggie and Jason Yowell, say they know the sport is dangerous but that their son has adopted it with the passion of an Olympian and become an expert.

He plans to take a year off after high school to work more on kayaking. He then plans to study physics at either Harvard or Yale.