RIVER RESCUE: Man caught in river current tells how he hung on to debris to stay alive

BELMONT, N.C. — Firefighters used a ladder and a boat to reach a kayaker along the South Fork Catawba River Wednesday afternoon after he got stuck in debris piled up near the Armstrong Ford Road Bridge.

Speaking with us Friday, Michael Beer said he was thankful for those who saved him from what had started out as an ordinary kayak trip with his friend David Berryhill.

[PHOTOS: Firefighters rescue kayaker from river]

The dramatic rescue was broadcast live from Chopper 9 Skyzoom to viewers across the Charlotte area.

There is a weir just upstream of the bridge that creates a rapid, and Beer was stuck against logs and other debris caught above it.

His kayak could be seen partially submerged nearby.

Cody Nichols was fishing on the bridge when he saw the man in trouble.

“No, I don’t know him but that's a whole human being out there,” Nichols said. “That's a whole life and he needs help.”

Nichols said he tried to help.

“I got in waist deep,” Nichols said. “When I got in, the current was too strong. It was rushing me down the river, so I'm holding on to the wall. I turned around and looked at him, ‘I can’t make it.’”

He then called 911.

Firefighters first used a ladder to get a rope to Beer to keep him from going underwater and to communicate with him. Then, they used a boat to get him to safety. He was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital.

"It was a scary situation It really was," Berryhill said.

Berryhill made it to shore but Beer drifted out of sight, traveling a mile downstream.

"I had one arm on the kayak and kind of halfway had my life jacket on," Beer said.

He couldn't reach the banks of the flooded river.

He saw a pile of debris washed up against a small dam with dangerous rapids on the other side.

"It was actually a sigh of relief, because I knew that was going to be what caught me," Beer said.

He grabbed onto it and held on.

(Photo taken by Beer while he clung onto debris pile)

His arms were already weak as the strong current threatened to pull him under.

"If I would have let go, I would have got pulled under the debris and stopped by the dam and not been able to fight up through the debris or get over the dam," Beer said.

Rescuers arrived and pulled him to safety.

“At one point I was, ‘OK, I got to do this. I can't not live. I got to stay up," he said.

Chopper 9 flies over a kayak rescue on the Catawba River

Posted by WSOC-TV on Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Emergency worker analyzes harrowing rescue

He is very lucky that he got stopped there, said Lt. Lee Cherry, of Gaston County Emergency Medical Services.

Cherry was one of the rescuers on the Armstrong Ford Road bridge who tried to help Beer cling to debris.

Cherry reviewed the rescue and talked about the dangerous currents below the surface.

"What you saw was the rapids on top but, under that rapid, the water is churning in a big circle,” Cherry said. “Looks like a blender down there."

He said the currents can push someone downriver for a long time before kicking them out.

"The water there is very threatening to have people in it," Cherry said.

The team of rescuers used a ladder truck but it didn't extend far enough to pull Beer out of the water.

The rescuers, however, were able to use the truck to communicate with him while they wrapped a strap around him.

"Someone to comfort him and keep him calm right there," Cherry said.

Cherry said that, if Beer had lost his grip, he would have slipped under the debris.

The Charlotte Fire Department got its boat into the water and pulled the man from the edge.

"(It's a) Relief for everyone, knowing he is OK,” Cherry said. “All the rescuers are OK and it's just a matter of getting back to shore now."

2 kayakers rescued in Stanly County

Emergency crews also rescued two stranded kayakers on the Rocky River at the N.C. Highway 24/27 bridge in Stanly County Wednesday afternoon, Midland rescue officials said.

The two are safe.