Boy nearly dies after kayak overturns in frigid Willamette

Boy nearly dies after kayak overturns in frigid Willamette »Play Video
Chad Berg, foreground, spent more than an hour in the cold Willamette River in January after his kayak overturned. His father, Geoff (background) held his son above the water after his own kayak flipped.

ALBANY, Ore. - Chad Berg's body temperature was only 72 degrees when he and his father were pulled from the Willamette River in January after their kayaks overturned.

The 15-year-old spent most of his 12 days in the hospital at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland recovering from hypothermia. The accident happened Jan. 28 just upstream from Albany's Hyak Park. He and his father, Geoff, did their first television interview Sunday.

The two were kayaking with a family friend when Chad’s kayak hit a log and flipped. The kayak became swamped and Chad's dad couldn't pull him to shore in the swift water. So their friend went for help.

Geoff held onto his son until his own kayak hit debris at a railroad bridge and flipped too, leaving both of them struggling in the frigid water.

"It was a little bit hard just because – to use my – to hold myself up there," Chad said. "But I don't really know how hard it was because it's hard to remember."

While the two were experienced kayakers and they were wearing flotation devices, the water was still an overpowering force.

"I think we certainly underestimated how cold the water was," Geoff said. "And I would probably – if I were going into water that cold again, I'd have a wet suit on."

The temperature of the water at the time of the accident was 41 degrees. Chad spent more than an hour in the water.

"Chad went real quickly talking normal, just as we're talking, to kind of slurring his speech, to not being able to talk at all in a matter of a couple of minutes," his father said. "And then to the point where he couldn't hold on anymore. And that's where I had to hold onto him to keep him above the water."

Members from Albany Fire Department’s water rescue team pulled both from the water and performed CPR on Chad for two hours.

"I was really glad for their help," said Chad. "I mean, they saved my life. And so without them I would not be here right now."

Doctors told the Bergs the same cold water that nearly killed Chad also helped saved his life. Even though he wasn't breathing in the water, his low body temperature also slowed down his metabolism, which allowed him to survive on the oxygen already in his body until he was pulled from the river.

Chad is almost fully recovered and is now well enough to play basketball for his school basketball team.

He and his father said they are grateful to the rescuers, the prayers from people in Albany and the work by doctors at Doernbecher.