By CHRIS HARRIS
As terrifying as Sunday’s turn of events on Lake Cumberland might have been, a worried mother knows it could have been much, much worse.
“It could have decapitated her.”
Kendra Champlin was describing what had happened to her daughter this weekend while out on a watercraft — when she ran right into a nylon string stretched underneath the Pitman Creek Bridge, leaving a nasty wound on her neck and a lot of unhappy memories.
The incident happened at about 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon. Champlin noted that her 17-year-old daughter Kelley Farley was riding a Sea-Doo under the Pitman Creek bridge, on the north fork of Lake Cumberland, along with Farley’s 10-year-old sister Karlie Champlin.
“I had stopped and we were idling,” said Farley. “I was showing (Karlie) the rock formations underneath. We had been through set sets of pillars (under the bridge) and we were going through the third when the rope struck my neck.
“It was very painful,” she added, “and very scary.”
Without warning, Farley was struck across the neck by what Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife spokesman Mark Marraccini described as an orange-colored nylon string, which was stretched between the pillars of the U.S. 27 bridge. Farley had said she wasn’t able to see it because of the reflection off the water.
“It hit her across the voice box,” said Champlin. “She had her head turned and (the string) hit her right by the jugular. She jerked her head around and it got the rest of it (her neck).”
The string snapped once it made contact with Farley, causing it to whip against her shoulder and cut her skin there too. The force wasn’t enough to knock her off the watercraft or propel her backwards, but it was enough to do some damage.
Champlin reflected that it was fortunate that Farley had only been idling. “If she had even been going at half-speed, it would have decapitated her, or sliced her jugular,” said Champlin. “Either way, she wouldn’t be here.”
The first thing Farley did was check on her sister to make sure she was okay. Champlin was proud of her daughter’s mental fortitude under duress even though she herself was “shaken” once the girls returned to the family’s houseboat.
“My initial reaction was to panic; I had to blink back tears,” said Champlin. “(Farley) kept herself under control because she was around her younger sister. ... I wanted to fall apart, but I had to keep it together for her.”
Fortunately, Champlin said that there was “very, very little blood” — another indicator that things could have been much worse.
Champlin, originally from Pulaski County but who now lives in Corbin, said Farley is back to work at the movie theater in her town.
Champlin said that they contacted Fish & Wildlife, which sent a conservation officer, Bryan Dolen, to investigate.
To Champlin, the initial suspicion was that someone could have placed the string there as some kind of practical joke or malicious snare — but definitely to catch someone the way it caught Farley.
“The guy we spoke to didn’t think there was any doubt it was a booby trap,” said Champlin, even though he told her that “there was no way to officially determine that.”
It was also noted that had it been a boat coming through rather than a small personal watercraft, it likely wouldn’t have injured anyone, as the string would have been snapped by the body of the boat.
Marraccini stressed that the string could have been there any number of different reasons, not necessarily as a trap, and that the investigation found that the situation “didn’t have the earmarks of something reaching that level.”
“There are too many scenarios that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it was,” he said. “It could be a lot of things. It could have been up there from when water levels where higher. It could be that someone rigged up an apparatus to keep their boat from floating off. It could be that someone tied it up and left it.”
Marraccini said that the string — “like off a spool you’d find at a discount store” — wasn’t across a boat lane but was perpendicular to the bridge surface rather than parallel to the road surface, tied between two of the pillars.
Marraccini also didn’t know about any potential criminal charges that could arise that would specifically cover string tied between two bridge pillars.
However, “it’s certainly dangerous,” he said. “It’s certainly not something you’d want anyone to do.”
Marraccini said that a booby trap angle wasn’t ruled out but the set-up “didn’t strike” the investigating officer as it being that kind of scenario. Nevertheless, Dolen alerted other officers around the lake to be on the alert and look for similar cases, said Marraccini.
“Certainly he’s looking into it,” said Marraccini of Dolen. “He’s not taking anything for granted.”
Marraccini added that while he’d heard of instances of things being left behind by high waters, he didn’t know of any other cases specifically like this one, with string tied between two bridge pillars where someone on a watercraft might come in contact with it.
Nevertheless, the message is clear: Be careful while out on the lake and keep a look out for what’s around you. If Kelley Farley could run into a string stretched under a bridge by accident, it could happen anywhere, and to anyone.
Or as Champlin put it, “We don’t want to see anyone hurt.”