The Harrowing Flight Of The Yellow Jackets
Post date: Apr 6, 2011 12:40:43 AM
So earlier this year, a representative from the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta contacted the GTCA and asked if we had any remarkable Dad Vail stories. Of course we do. In 1996 our trailer crashed on the way to the regatta and not only was it our most dangerous trip to Philadelphia but it was also one our most successful trips. It was a story to be told.
So our Communications Director, Cassi Niemann, contacted the alumni who were involved and asked if they would write up a story about what happened. Many of you stepped up and helped draft up a story which was then researched and followed-up by the editor at Dad Vails... and finally, it has been published and you can read the FINAL story here! It is also available on the official Dad Vail website!
Thanks to the all who helped write up this story: Alumni Janet Kinard, Kelley Conway, Bobby & Jill O'Keefe, Jonathan Snow and Coach Rob Canavan. We hope you like the story and choose to share it!
FEATURE STORY NO. 6
As anticipation builds for the 2011 Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta Presented by Coca-Cola, the Dad Vail Regatta Organizing Committee is releasing a series of stories through the Dad Vail Website and through various multimedia channels that typify the countless reasons why Dad Vail is the greatest regatta in North America. Visit www.dadvail.org for weekly stories. If you have a story to tell, contact the DVROC at email@example.com.
The Harrowing Flight Of The Yellow Jackets
In the spring of 1996, the Georgia Tech crew team was poised for its best showing at the Dad Vail Regatta in program history. Instead, a frightening traffic accident led to a chaotic sequence of events that proved competitive fire can extinguish any obstacle.
Dusk settled in over Greenville, South Carolina.
The gleaming headlights of cars whistling in the Southeast lanes of Interstate 85 served as spotlights. One by one, they illuminated the scene.
Ten jolted rowers and one coach from Georgia Tech standing in the road. A disfigured van laying on its side in the middle of the Northbound lane. A trailer strapped with 10 boats sitting mangled in the grass median.
"We all looked at each other in shock - did that just happen?" remembers Jonathan Snow, then an 18-year-old Georgia Tech freshman who was white-knuckled at the wheel when the team's van caught a gust of wind, swerved, jackknifed with the attached trailer and flipped over 1 and 1/3rd time. "It was all a blur."
In disbelief, they tried to comprehend the moment. Was this real? The carnage of the wreck didn't match the outcome. Everyone was fine. A few bumps and bruises. Nary a broken bone. The "M" word entered each of their minds.
Just as a calm set in over the accident victims, though, the night air was stricken.
One of the passing cars clipped a stern jutting into the opposite side of I-85. The jarring crack punched the group out of its daze. "We went from shock, to realizing that we were OK, to just trying to salvage some equipment,' Snow now says.
The Georgia Tech rowers scrambled into the median to unhook boats from the trailer. THWAK! Another was hit. They saved a few shells, for a moment forgetting that they were lucky to be alive, let alone able to rescue a couple of distressed boats.
Immediately, a traffic jam had formed behind the capsized crew van. Janet Kinard remembers seeing a sea of red brake lights and thinking, "Great ... traffic." A member of the women's team, Kinard was in another Georgia Tech team van. As traffic gradually made its way over the crest of a hill, the scene came into focus.
"At the bottom of the hill lay a mangled trailer, a van, and boats, scattered like matchsticks in the highway median and blocking traffic on both sides of the interstate," Kinard remembers. "When we got closer, it became apparent that the van pulling the trailer and carrying our novice men had rolled over when the trailer tipped."
Amid the hysteria, a good samaritan emerged. Wyllis Taylor, a local insurance salesman, scurried toward the accident to offer help. He latched the crumbled trailer to his truck and dragged it along to the parking lot of his insurance company. Kinard's van, along with "two or three" other trailing Georgia Tech vans, scooped up the 11 stranded accident victims. A few were taken to a local hospital for precautionary checks and soon released.
According to Kinard, a South Carolina State Highway patrolman said that in all his years on the job, he had never seen an accident so serious that had so many people walk away alive.
Upon arriving at Wyllis' insurance company, a team member picked up the phone. Remember, it was 1996; no cell phones. The Georgia Tech coaching staff, including head man Rob Canavan, were already in Philadelphia with a handful of varsity team members.
No one - coaches or school officials - were aware that a near catastrophic crash had occurred.
"I answered the phone and the first thing I heard was, 'Everybody is OK, but ...'" says Canavan. "Then there was a long silence and a big, deep breath of someone who had actually flipped over in a van." Canavan stopped recalling the story to note, "It was really a miracle that no one got killed."
After informing Canavan and the Georgia Tech administration of the night's events, the crew slept on the floor of Taylor's insurance office for a few hours. They awoke at 7 am and as Snow remembers, "We looked at each other and said, 'Alright, now what?' Most of the boats that were on the trailer were destroyed and by that point, the rest of the team that had arrived in Philly knew about it."
Included amongst those team members was the Yellow Jackets' men's varsity lightweight eight - a favorite to win gold at Dad Vail. Their boat, however, was shattered in half and sat in Wyllis Taylor's parking lot.
"The rowers were heartbroken," says Canavan. "They all thought their season was over."
Coach Chris Betz, who was in the van that tumbled down I-85, gathered the oarsmen together and said, "Look, it's been a pretty traumatic trip. I'll do whatever you want to do. Rob (Canavan) has connections in Philly and he's trying to figure out what boats everyone can row in when we get there. Do you want to proceed and race or go back?"
The caveat here is that Georgia Tech's administration wanted the team to immediately come back, file paper work and do numerous things that didn't quite stack up to rowing at Dad Vail.
"Well, us being a bunch of precocious freshmen, we wanted to go to our national championship," says Snow, recounting the story like a fairytale. "We weren't hurt. We were amped up. He gave us a choice and, needless to say, it didn't take long to decide.
"We were going up to Philly."
Unnerved but undaunted, Georgia Tech got back on the road. Back on track. Back to the task at hand - the 1996 Dad Vail Regatta. Those who were in the accident squeezed into the vans that trailed them and had stayed with them through the night.
As the crew raced to make up for lost time, Canavan, a Temple grad who rowed out of Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club, worked up and down Kelly Drive to find available boats.
"It really couldn't have been handled as well as it was without the rowing community in Philly," Canavan said. "We were asking teams that we're doing battle with the next day to borrow their equipment."
As Canavan successfully found shells, Kelly Drive was flooded with the story of how Georgia Tech has flipped its van and was still coming to the Vails.
"Before we even arrived it was a big story," says Snow. "The word was out. We were mini-celebrities. Everywhere Georgia Tech went that weekend it was, 'Oh look, there are those guys.' More than anything, though, people were supportive. They liked the spirit that we still wanted to compete."
Referencing the Yellow Jackets' discarded trailer and scraped shells, revered Philadelphia sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick of The Philadelphia Inquirer began his article the next day saying, "Tough sport, this rowing. The 58th Dad Vail Regatta won't begin until this morning, but already its casualty list is a lengthy one."
Thus, the legend grew, and on the second weekend of May 1996, Georgia Tech crew defined the passion of the Dad Vail Regatta. The Yellow Jackets posted a third-place finish in the team point competition. The performance was highlighted by the men's lightweight eight capturing silver despite competing in four different boats and the women's team winning its first-ever medal at Vails.
The men's freshmen eight, which climbed out the driver's side window of an overturned van on Tuesday, won silver medals on Saturday.
"Everyone said, 'Alright this is an adversity, let's go do what we came here to do," says Snow. "And that attitude got it done."
Rob Canavan remains as Georgia Tech's head coach. He was honored in 2009 as the Southeast ACRA Coach of the Year and in 2010 as the Dad Vail Coach of the Year.
Despite apprehension after the crash, Jonathan Snow remained on Tech's crew team through the rest of his college career and ultimately served as team president. He remains heavily involved in the program to this day.
Wyllis Taylor, who Canavan calls "our little own guardian angel," still holds a special place in Georgia Tech lore. Canavan finally met him a year after the accident when Tech crew christened a new shell named in his honor.
Following the '96 Dad Vail, Georgia Tech crew was suspended by the administration for defying instructions and missed the following fall rowing season. "They told us to go home. We decided to go another route. We took our lumps for it," says Canavan. Added Kinard: "Every team member would do it again in a heartbeat."
Georgia Tech has competed in every Dad Vail Regatta since the accident.
The Yellow Jackets will compete in the 2011 Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta on May 13th and 14th on the Schuylkill River. It will mark the 15-year anniversary of the accident.
Brendan F. Quinn
Dad Vail Regatta Organizing Committee
Cell Phone: (610) 322-5415
DVROC Office Line: (610) 234-2076
Photo Credit: Cassi Niemann, Georgia Tech Crew Alumni
Feature Story Series ~ Past Stories
About the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta, Presented by Coca-Cola®
This is the largest collegiate regatta in North America with over 100 colleges and universities from the United States and Canada participating. Held annually since 1953 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the Schuylkill River, thousands of student athletes and spectators visit the City of Philadelphia during the weekend of the second Saturday in May.
The Yellow Jacket, one of two Georgia Tech boats that survived the trailer crash, glides down the Schuylkill River at the 1996 Dad Vail.