When I walked into Larry Patrick’s giant jumble of a house in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, back in early April, summer was already palpable: the summers of 1969 all the way through 1980. Images of those twelve summers, the best of Larry’s life, filled the walls of the house that had been in his family since the 1920s, on land settled back in the 18th century, long before anyone could have conceived of such a strange and wonderful thing as a raft race.
There was Larry on one wall, bearded and grinning, with 1979 Playboy Playmate Candy Loving. There he was on another beside Governor Jimmy Carter. And next to many of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity brothers—“day labor,” as some referred to themselves—who helped bring his far-out idea to life. His house was a de facto museum dedicated to the Ramblin’ Raft Race—at one time the largest participatory sporting event in the world, according to the Guinness Book—which he created on the Chattahoochee River at the tail end of the 1960s, when he was ostensibly studying textile management at Georgia Tech.
Slide rules weren’t really Larry’s thing, and thanks to both luck and pluck, and many generous helpers, he got the raft race off the ground and floating. There were rafts made of beers cans, salvaged wood, inner tubes, car parts, and adolescent ingenuity. There were gunboats and coffin rafts and floating political ads. Many crashed and some sank as they tried to make it ten miles from Morgan Falls Dam to Paces Ferry. Incredibly, Patrick kept the litter to a minimum, organizing huge cleanups after the floating and paddling and—oh yes—a little drinking and loving was done.
The race ultimately brought nearly a half million people to the ’Hooch every third Saturday in May. Many racers hadn’t cared about, or even known about, the river before Patrick’s invention. Their dawning awareness was instrumental in protecting it. The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area was created soon after the race finally collapsed, under its own unwieldy weight, in 1980.
How, exactly, did it all start though? Sitting down in his Kings Mountain office and turning on my tape recorder, I asked Larry to tell me. Ha! He got a big smile, like the one Candy Loving inspired, and tried like hell to fill his lungs with enough air to share the story, any story. Pumped into his nose from a rotating cast of oxygen tanks by his side, the air came in terrible fits that left his face red and his mouth gasping. He got a few sentences out at a time:
“I’d just been fired from my library job. I had all this time on my hands, and I needed something to get excited about. In 1969, Tech only had about three girls.” He had to stop. “We used the raft race as a tool. We were getting the whole town wet. Taking them on an education tour.” He had to stop again. “The raft race consumed me.”
It was easier to simply show me photographs. So Larry got up with a lurch and let me take his chair. “It’s all there,” he gasped, pointing to a folder on his desktop. The photos made me feel, not for the first time, like I’d been born a little too late.
Larry had a degenerative lung condition, probably from smoking cigarettes for years, which didn’t stop him from taking visitors from Atlanta to his favorite restaurant in Kings Mountain (where he’d have wine against the well-meaning but futile protestations of his wonderful caretaker, Deborah), or for drives—with someone else at the wheel—to the senior center dedicated to his father, or to the family yarn factory run by his brother, Gilbert. It was lost on very few that Larry could only have come from a yarn family.
“Everybody came, even Ted Turner,” he told me, when he had the air. “He built his own raft. I remember him telling me, ‘Larry, wouldn’t it be nice if we had some Coney Island hot dogs?’ ‘Yeah, sure,’ I said. ‘Well, let’s get some!’ He sent a plane to New York to get the hot dogs.”
Nothing that good could last. Neither could Larry. He died this past Sunday, at 66, from the lung condition that had hospitalized him for the last few months. Shortly after my oral history of his raft race came out in June, he had invited me and my girlfriend to Kings Mountain to stay in his old house, play with his farm animals, join him for a drink in town. When his lungs let him, he told me with characteristic delight, not for the first time: “My grandmother wanted me to be a man of the cloth!”
Every third Saturday of May during the 1970s, Atlanta hosted a raft race on the Chattahoochee River. Sounds simple, and it sort of was, until the race took on dimensions that even its founder, Larry Patrick, never imagined. Thousands of rafts would take to the water, sailing (and often sinking) down river with their cockeyed captains and tipsy deckhands aboard. Now, on the 35th anniversary of the Ramblin’ Raft Race’s end, we revisit the Georgia Tech frat boys who made it happen—as well as a few other folks who weren’t too happy to have a quarter-million people partying on the banks of the ’Hooch with their tops off, their cups full, and, for a while there, no one to stop them.
1969–1971: The Fraternity Years
MIKE DINEEN, 71, is retired and living in North Augusta, South Carolina. In the early 1970s, he was a DJ at WQXI radio. I came to the station in June of 1969, fresh out of the Army. I was feeling pretty frisky. Atlanta was full of boundless energy and enthusiasm. There were buildings going up downtown. Underground was flourishing with entertainers like Piano Red and Cortez Greer. I-285 was nearly complete. It was just fabulous, the feeling the city projected. Atlanta was ripe for a party. All it needed was a spark, somebody to light a match.
LARRY PATRICK,66, is retired and living in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, where he is fighting a degenerative lung disease. In 1969, as a student at Georgia Tech, he thought it would be fun to stage a competition on the ’Hooch and asked WQXI if it would help promote the “First Annual Great Chattahoochee River Raft Race.” I’d just been fired from my library job. I had all this time on my hands, and I needed something to get excited about. In 1969 Tech only had about three girls.
DINEEN The gauntlet was thrown down on-air. He challenged us. It built momentum, and at the end of the show, we walked down to the program director’s office to ask for a few hundred dollars for a raft, to rent a van, that kind of stuff.
On July 26, 1969—a week after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, less than a month before Woodstock—Patrick and his crew, which dwindled from nine to three over the course of the race, won the 34-mile inaugural event in about 30 hours.
DINEEN We had around 55 entrants, maybe 2,500 watching. Right away, we realized that rather than a competitive race, we should just make this a fun float, a social event.
PATRICK By the end of the race, no one knew where the finish line was, and nobody really cared. I’d just joined the [Delta Sigma Phi] fraternity, but they made me vice president because of the thing’s popularity. The talk about it never quit. So we figured we’d do it again.
Applications for what was called the “Second Annual Delta Sigma Phi Chattahoochee Raft Race”—now 10 miles, stretching from below Morgan Falls Dam to Paces Ferry—came from as far away as Chapel Hill. The Coca-Cola Company offered free soda at the finish and a “raft load” of Cokes for the winner of each race class: “battleships” (homemade rafts with more than 60 square feet of deck), “tugboats” (smaller homemade rafts), and “commercial” (such as rubber rafts). Spectators lined the Powers Ferry bridge to watch 1,066 rafts compete in water raised three feet by Georgia Power.
GARY CORRY,who died in 2010, was a WQXI program director in the early 1970s. From “Keep the Needle Peaking”, his memoir: In addition to the liability insurance the station already carried, I was ordered to take out another one. Hire a plane to buzz the river all day trailing a banner saying, “WQXI welcomes everyone to the raft race”; have huge signs painted; flyers printed; write and produce more promos; and remember if anything goes wrong, it was my idea to get the station involved in this crazy promotion.
PATRICK We only had one injury, and that was a sprained ankle. The race was a huge success. We got the whole town wet.
TOM FREEMAN,67, lives in Morganton, North Carolina, and works in software development. He wrote the famous Raft Race jingle, which included the lines: “Then I studied and I figured and I nearly went daft! Floatin’ 42 people on a 12-foot raft?” Larry was a genius. It was scary how smart he was and how all-inclusive his vision was. He envisioned an east team and a west team traveling the country and doing this event.
“Probably the most outstanding entry of all ended the cruise two miles short of its destination. The Chattahoochee Queen, Delta Sigma Phi’s entry, was a 34-foot-long pirate ship complete with tri-deck, mast, and pirate flag, but alas, she sank.” —Atlanta Journal, May 18, 1970
JERRY HIGHTOWER,67, has been a park ranger at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area since 1978. Tens of thousands of people were all coming to the Chattahoochee. While it had its problems, it was knock-down gorgeous. You didn’t see the buildings that you see today. Very little traffic noise. And even though there may have been a haze, so to speak, with some folks, the beauty of the river stuck with them.
By the third year, some 180,000 spectators and 4,700 entrants came from as far away as Michigan. Race booklets were printed with maps and pictures. Georgia Power cleared a camping area at Morgan Falls Dam. The Marine Corps offered to transport rafts on its trucks. A broadcasting company built scaffolding along the river to film the race. Even the University of Georgia took note. George B. Purdle, president of the University of Georgia’s Yachting Fraternity, sent a letter of challenge to “the men of the Yellow Jacket Armada” that read:“On the morning of May 22, 1971, one delegation of mad Bulldogs will descend from the North to appear on the water and prove once and for all the superiority and know-how of the mammal over the insect . . . not all the slide rules in the world can take the place of sheer guts and determination.” Some 170 Georgia Tech students helped Patrick and a group of his fraternity brothers prepare for the race.
FREEMANBefore the race, Larry didn’t sleep. He was keenly aware that thousands of lives were on his shoulders. He’d work with all the government starched-suit guys. And then he’d hunker with the college kids. He could work with anybody on any level. He was a true entrepreneurial CEO, way before his time.
PATRICK I got good at begging for stuff. Even from my brother.
GILBERT PATRICK,61, lives in Kings Mountain and is Larry Patrick’s younger brother. I helped stage the whole thing. I ran the finish line for a few years. Then the whole match. I’d just react to where things were going wrong. One time, a windstorm came up the night before the race and made a 20-foot rip in a tent, so at three o’clock in the morning, we’re sewing.
PATRICK Gilbert leveled a hill at the U.S. 41 takeout for me—without permission.
G. PATRICK The finish line there was really steep. So Larry sends me and two [fraternity] brothers to fix it. We had a pick and a shovel, trying to knock this hill off. Well, there was a small Caterpillar D8 dozer sitting nearby. Phil said, “Why don’t we use that? You don’t need a key!” Fifteen minutes later, we take the hill off and push the dirt in the water. Truthfully, we cut it to where it is today. We were pretty pleased. But Larry went ballistic: “You can’t do that!” I said, “It’s done; we can’t put it back.”
PATRICK I don’t know why, but we never got in trouble.
G. PATRICK We even put crossties up the sides and landscaped it out. It looked really nice until the first flood; they all washed down the river.
CHARLEY CHENEY, 65, lives in England. I was “day labor.” No food provided, no water, not much instruction, left at the Lockheed raft assembly area in the hot sun until I got shifted to the finish, stopping rafts at the mooring line—a three-inch-diameter rope—helping them up a slippery, muddy bank. Exhausting under the best circumstances, dawn-to-dusk. Things hadto change.
“It may have been the world’s biggest float-in—4,700 rafts, inner tubes and oil drums, and one floating Volkswagen—carrying no fewer than 20,000 happy Georgians down a 9-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee in a demonstration dramatizing the need to clean up the river, which runs through suburban Atlanta. But then, with 100,000 people watching along the shore, the float-in turned into a kind of watery Woodstock.” —Newsweek, June 7, 1971
T RUSKIN,64, lives in Roswell and owns Applied Thermal Resources, an HVAC equipment company. You had several thousand people spending the night there by the river. There was a lot of partying, but people were good. I don’t remember much more than good-natured chaos.
JOE TANNER,77, lives in Thomaston. He is a former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. It got to be unruly, drunken. There was tremendous litter from the participants and the spectators. They pretty much trashed the river. A lot of the crafts just disintegrated.
PATRICK When someone said a bad thing about the raft race, I took it personally. People talk about all the drunks and everything, but my crowd was pretty nice. Farther down, it got rowdy. The county commissioners in Fulton gave permits to sell beer and then got on me about it.
RUSKIN Anything home-built, 50 percent of those didn’t make it. A former Falcons player, Alex Hawkins, he built a humongous raft he brought in at night. I don’t know how many dozens were on it, but it made it a couple hundred yards down the river before it went under.
G. PATRICK To get the stuck rafts out, usually you had about two johnboats and about three boys on each boat. The Palisades section was always catching people. It’s lucky more didn’t go under.
HIGHTOWER There was so much unopened beer floating in the river—entire six-packs in the eddies and brush. Young folks were excited about helping us clean up.
CHENEY Larry got raked over the coals after 1971. No one anticipated that the event would take off as it did. It’s suddenly really important to have a transportation system set up, the right number of Porta-Potties in the right places, the right number of food and drink vendors. All the things college kids never anticipated in 1969.
1972–1978: Big-Business Time
In 1972 Patrick helped create the American Rafting Association (ARA), a nonprofit that—with the promotional help of WQXI—ran the “Ramblin’ Raft Race.” But opposition had increased: The race was polluting the river and snarling traffic. Patrick issued trash bags to spectators and contestants, and spent weeks after the race cleaning the river. Styrofoam crafts were banned. A large net was stretched across the river at U.S. 41 to prevent downstream pollution. Patrick even helped inaugurate a Georgia Tech course, Industrial Engineering 491: Raft Race Systems Analysis. There were now six race divisions, including a “Bikini Division,” in which each craft would be crewed entirely by women, “preferably in bikinis.”
JIM UNDERWOOD, 65, runs an estate planning practice based in Atlanta.I was studying industrial engineering [at Tech], so I was supposed to know about traffic control. Larry asked me to help plan. We were a bunch of engineers who thought we could figure it out.
CHENEY Jim was one of the most important additions Larry made to his “staff.” He pretty much designed the transport system. In 1972 it was radical to think about traffic flows, how to engineer those things.
UNDERWOOD I remember we had to go down to Joe Tanner’s office and present our plan—that it wouldn’t be a disaster in 1972. The state was about to close it down due to the traffic jams.
RUSKIN The U.S. Army Reserves were called in at some point to help at the finish.
TANNERIt was a nightmare—that’s what I remember.
UNDERWOOD We had a trailer out at the Morgan Falls, where we headquartered traffic control: maps, bus schedules, contact information, telephones, radios. It was command and control. We had police there, reporters. We set up big parking areas at Lockheed, where buses shuttled rafters to the start and the finish, so we wouldn’t have cars jammed everywhere. We had rafts brought in the night before.We parked the trailer under these high-tension power lines to energize it. Every time you hit the door wrong, you got a shock.
UNDERWOOD Larry and the other guys had all the fun, while we were back there running traffic control.
DEBORAH STAUDINGER,59, is a partner at Hogan Lovells law firm, based in Washington, D.C. She was one of the few women on Patrick’s team. Our student civil engineering group used to build a raft out of Budweiser beer cans, and I helped row it down the river. That’s how I joined Larry’s gang. There weren’t many other women. Here I was, a dorky engineer, and I got to do all this cool stuff. And the guys were really nice. Larry had an ability to lead.
“The scene outside Atlanta . . . looked like something out of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph. In the early dawn, smoke from fires rose to join the rising mist over fields littered with large Huck Finn rafts a man could live on . . . Hunkered down in this marvelous disarray, an Atlanta engineer wondered aloud if some of his fellow men, chafed by a world of increasing complexity, might not have a subconscious urge to test themselves, uncompromisingly, irrationally even, against pre-technological forces and dangers.” —Sports Illustrated, May 29, 1972
CHENEY The first big event Charlie Daniels Band ever played was that 1972 race. That was one of the few things I got to see. We were too busy trying to fix things: “I can’t get my truck moved. How do I get my raft out of the river? I can’t find my mother.”
UNDERWOOD A lot of Larry’s time, energy, and personality were wrapped up in the race, and he wanted to make sure it was done right and done well. What we put down on paper in 1972 actually worked. And it was filmed!
CHENEYBob Storer of Storer Broadcasting made “It’s a Beautiful Day to Save the River,”another distraction that damned near killed us. There was no dialogue, just abstracts with “Woodstock” split screens. I think Larry probably has the only copies.
PATRICK It was a horrible movie.
RUSKIN Still, it was my claim to fame. I was a movie star for a week. In college!
CHENEY And then there was the cleanup. We’d clean all day and then try to sleep on these boat trailers. At some point, you’ve got to study. But you’re responsible for cleaning up from Morgan Falls all the way to south of 41.
PATRICK You have the best time when you’re busting your ass. That’s what Ted Turner told me. He was there.
Race day weather was cold and rainy, but an estimated 200,000 spectators still showed up to see some 20,000 participants in gunboats, coffin rafts, cars on tubes, and floating political ads. There was a growing feeling among some of Patrick’s fraternity brothers that he had wrested control of the race away from them.
DINEEN After 1972 larger interests became big parts of the event: beer companies, insurance companies. It became big business. And of course, all the big magazine coverage was still happening with Larry front and center.
PATRICK Budweiser told me I was responsible for more beer sold than any man who ever walked.
CHENEYThis fact gets lost: how much putting on the race cost Larry personally, in terms of friendships. Some of his fraternity felt he was taking the event away from them.But he had this vision with what he wanted to do. And anyway, time tends to put a nice haze on the pain and suffering.
There was plenty of pain, and of course, it wasn’t limited to those who put on the race.
RUSKIN We had a rope across the river that was the starting line. As the rafts were put in the river—10-by-15s, double-deckers, few well-built—the big boats started first, and they’d mosey across that rope. And then the Corps of Engineers let out water, which created a current to push the boats. But there was a rope in the way; suddenly every boat near it got caught up in it and was basically torn apart.
HIGHTOWER People were losing their rafts, their coolers, their friends. Everyone is getting pushed under by that damn rope. Lord knows what it cost.
RUSKIN If you got past the start, you were gonna have some fun.
PETE BAILEY,69, is a real estate developer in Sea Island. Beginning in the early 1970s, he lived in a condo along the Chattahoochee at a famously free-spirited community called Riverbend, more than halfway through the race course. You could almost walk across the Chattahoochee on all the floats during the day, it was so full of people. They were getting in and out all over the place. They stopped at Riverbend and wouldn’t go any farther with that beer truck sitting there. I had the door of my condo open; people came in and out. One of my old girlfriends came along once, and we started arguing about who broke up with who.
Referred to in one press account as “Georgia’s answer to the Spanish Armada,” the raft race now included sponsors like Dairy Queen and the Treasure Island discount stores. The ARA had also launched races in Nashville and St. Paul. But Atlanta’s was largest. And Riverbend remained a focal point for the less serious “racers,” who were the vast majority.
BAILEY They used to call Riverbend “Gonorrhea Gulch.” I guess there was a lot of sex going on. The Raft Race seemed to heighten that. Particularly with people who’d just met. They’d stop off at Riverbend and go by the big pool and meet. You’d go to that huge beer truck and have a beer and watch the girls take off their tops as they passed. You look back on some of these things and say, “Man, did that really happen?”
PATRICK My dad said, “Son, you’ve been a wonderful member of this family. But when your grandmother sees nekkid people drinking on the side of the river because you put them there, we might not be family anymore.” Fortunately the first thing she saw when she got off the river was her Presbyterian minister.
The increasing cost of putting on a safe and clean race led Patrick to run the race for profit, with the help of WQXI. The station sent out a hot air balloon manned by DJ “Coyote McCloud” to “cover” the race from the sky.
TANNER There were people who came down through there nude or partially nude, drunk, getting out on private property and creating issues and so forth with homeowners. It started off pretty harmless, but it turned into a nightmare.
HIGHTOWER I went out and looked at the impacts of the race for the Georgia Wildlife Federation. I’d start at the river’s edge and look up the bank and back 10 feet. I spent all day out there, before and after the race. My conclusion, which some people didn’t like, is that sure, it cost taxpayers, and it was a law enforcement nightmare, but trash-wise it wasn’t as big a deal as people thought.
BILL DOMENICO,83, moved to River-bend in 1971. He lives in Marietta. We’d drift down the river and drink and smoke and everybody was just hanging loose. It was just a big floating party. Not drowning was winning for most of them.
Sponsors increased at what was now called the “WQXI Ramblin’ Raft Race.” Coca-Cola provided thousands of balloons, and Rich’s department store offered race T-shirts, sunscreen, and towels. Patrick, who had graduated with a degree in textile management, was still living and running ARA out of a Georgia Tech dormitory building, where “most of my volunteers could hear me from a loudspeaker.” The university gave him $350 a month for managing the dorm.
PATRICKIt was all so expensive—Porta-Potties, rental stages, rental sound, everything—I had to hit Dad up for some money.
JAMES “BUBBA” SLOAN, 64, is owner of Atlanta’s High Country Outfitters. We’d get phone calls from people blaming us because someone using our rafts was urinating in their yard next to the river. I would say, “Oh God, we’re really sorry.” There wasn’t much we could do.
CHENEY There was an impression Larry was getting filthy rich from all this madness. You don’t get rich on $5 a throw—no matter who is out there.
PATRICK Everybody came, even Ted Turner. He built his own raft. I remember him telling me, “Larry, wouldn’t it be nice if we had some Coney Island hot dogs?” “Yeah, sure,” I said. “Well, let’s get some!” He sent a plane to New York to get the hot dogs.
G. PATRICK I think Ted learned to sail at the race.
“As Cobb County Civil Defense director, [James] Ray knows that the higher the turnout of rafters, boaters or inner-tubers, the greater the risk of someone losing his life . . . even with a $25,000 budget and dedicated volunteers, the Cobb rescue operations often are not able to prevent tragedies.” —The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, May 21, 1977
STAUDINGER Larry planned with the local agencies: police, fire, EMT. There was such care taken to make sure proper safety precautions were made.
HIGHTOWER It was only a matter of time before someone got hurt. But it hadn’t happened yet, so the show went on. And it kept getting more acclaim.
1978–1980: New Players, New Battles
An extra 70 Cobb County police officers, along with several dozen state police, patrolled the race course, which was now being called “The Rose Bowl of the River.” Between 300,000 and 400,000 spectators showed up. One couple nearly drowned after being swept under construction debris below the I-285 bridge. Both the man and woman were pronounced dead when removed from the river, but then subsequently revived. Larry Patrick’s star continued to rise.
FREEMAN He had a mentality like Richard Branson or Mark Cuban: the real, true whacked-out visionaries that either wind up billionaires or on skid row. With his mind and grit, he could have been a billionaire or held public office.
“Huckleberry Finn is alive and well, masquerading as Larry Patrick. ‘When Mark Twain wrote about Huck Finn, he immortalized the raft,’ says Patrick, president of the Atlanta-based American Rafting Association. ‘We’ve popularized it.’” —The Columbus Enquirer, May 17, 1978
TANNER We were watching close.
“Cobb County police will be observing the action at Saturday’s ‘Ramblin’ Raft Race’ with an eye toward seeing that the 10th anniversary of the annual Chattahoochee River event is also its last anniversary . . . police officers stationed along the race route will likely be recording the carousing crowd on both still and movie film.”—The Atlanta Journal, May 16, 1978
PATRICK It was stressful.
HIGHTOWER In the summer of 1978, there was no park presence. You could go down to Diving Rock beach on a weekend in July and buy quaaludes and speed. People would spend all day selling $5 beers to underage folks who could afford it.
“Cobb County District Attorney Tom Charron no longer wants to stop the annual Chattahoochee River Ramblin’ Raft Race, but he thinks race sponsors should reimburse local authorities for the additional police protection the race requires. ‘It takes a lot of man-hours and money to police an event like that,’ said Charron. ‘I think it’s only right that the sponsors reimburse the city or county for the police they send out there.’ . . . Cobb County was forced to position 70 extra officers along the 9.2 mile course.” —Chattanooga News–Free Press, May 23, 1978
On August 15, 1978, President Jimmy Carter established the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. It was good news for protection of the area.
PATRICK I didn’t think we’d get that park. I really didn’t.
TANNER Now they had to come to us to apply for a marine event permit.
HIGHTOWERThe National Park Service runs a very tight ship, and they weren’t real crazy about having a raft race in 1979. So they brought in rangers from all over the region, including a park police detail from Washington, D.C.
By now there were more than 70,000 participants and 400,000 spectators, and the race’s budget was around $100,000. Meanwhile the new Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area recruited 25 park rangers from around the Southeast for duty. Patrick moved ARA’s offices to a little building on Third Street.
PATRICK I got to walk around with a Playboy Playmate named Candy Loving, who was sent out there by Budweiser. She was something.
CHENEY I didn’t get to see Candy. She had plenty of competition in the crowd, though.
“[Patrick] said he has never drawn the $12,000 annual salary he is due as executive director of the ARA. ‘There was always rope we needed to buy, or another vehicle, or bullhorns,’ Patrick said. ‘I hope this year will be the first’ . . . ‘The dorm’s being torn down for expressway expansion, so there goes my home, my job, and my office,’ he said, fingering the wide brim of the beaver felt hat that has become a race day lucky charm over the years.” —The Atlanta Journal, May 18, 1979
CARL HOLMBERG,74, is retired and living in Maryland. Beginning in the late 1970s, he was a regional law enforcement specialist tasked with coordinating efforts among the park and local police and fire departments. We weren’t prepared to handle all the found property—clothing, wallets, jewelry—or the lost people. Sixteen-year-olds who didn’t make arrangements for pickup. We’d have all these parents showing up saying, “Where’s my child? He hasn’t come home!” They’d expect you to drop everything. And there were 50 or 60 parents asking all at once.
“In what some in the Atlanta radio community view as a major promotional blow to WQXI, the American Rafting Association (ARA), which puts on the Ramblin’ Raft Race, has signed on arch-rival station Z-93 (WZGC-FM) as its primary sponsor and promotional arm for the 1979 event.” —The Atlanta Constitution, March 1, 1979
The ARA had a river permit, but WQXI did not go quietly, securing a separate permit to use Morgan Falls State Park on race day and teaming with Budweiser to create a “WQXI-Budweiser Fleet” contest as part of the race. Litigation ensued, but “the world’s largest participatory event” went on with ARA in control.
PATRICK It was more the result of differing philosophies than anything else. The raft race didn’t belong to the media; it belonged to the people of Atlanta.
“‘It was a matter of money,’ [said WQXI general manager Jerry Blum]. ‘He [Patrick] was going to get more money from somebody else.’” —North Fulton Extra, May 1, 1980
HOLMBERGPeople were jumping off of Diving Rock stark naked. That always attracted a crowd. And they’d be intoxicated. And somebody would bump into someone else, and you’d have a fight. As a brand-new park, how do you handle prisoners? Where do you transport them? How are they processed?
TANNER We had a Cobb County magistrate down on a sandbar. You’d bring the people in who didn’t comply with the law, and he’d take their case and act on it right there in the river. We also had a bus to take noncompliant people to the jail.
The Atlanta Constitution reported 110 injuries, including a 15-year-old boy who broke his neck trying to jump from a bridge down toa raft.
HIGHTOWERThere was growing concern with the local governments over the expense of the raft race: “How many of our residents are benefiting from this?” I know with the Park Service, we budgeted $60,000 for extra rangers for a two-day period.
HOLMBERG I always wondered what happened to people who didn’t make it to the take-out area around Palisades. Maybe they’re still floating out in the Gulf of Mexico.
The ARA and WQXI continued to fight over control of the race, both seeking the coveted “water event” permit given out by the Department of Natural Resources. In April, WQXI won the permit and, with a budget of about $100,000, planned the race without Patrick’s involvement. Once a strong supporter of the race, the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution reported that public safety officials had concluded, “There’s no way to fully control the thousands of beer-swilling, dope-smoking rafters” who would take part.
FREEMAN WQXI beat our socks off in court with a bunch of high-priced lawyers. Overly ambitious people thought that they could take over an event about which they knew nothing. We were barred from the event.
CHENEY They had no experience and no concept of the organization and contacts that Larry had by that point: Cobb County rescue, local police and safety offices, the Georgia Conservancy, Fish and Game. There was a tremendous amount of coordination necessary, and they didn’t do their homework.
TANNER We had to go clean it up ourselves. We took park personnel, rangers to take litter out to a landfill. There was tons. We couldn’t find anyone to clean up the mess, much less control it. That was a problem, but the drowning was a disaster.
HIGHTOWER There was a drowning the night before the race. He was doing some pre-race partying when he went in. On race day itself, I was assigned to a rescue boat with another ranger at Diving Rock, in the narrows. It’s a rocky area. At high water, you get big waves. And people were getting tossed out. We’re grabbing them and taking them over to the aid station. Then bigger rafts come down, and they’re slamming into islands, breaking up. Suddenly you’ve got two-by-fours with big nails floating by, hitting rubber rafts. We’re grabbing folks, throwing them on the islands, and going back to get more. The water is cold, and nobody’s wearing a life jacket. People are screaming, “Get us off the island!”
“Divers searched two areas on the rain-swollen, muddy Chattahoochee River for reported drowning victims Saturday, but the search was called off at dark. There were confused and unconfirmed reports throughout the afternoon and evening that as many as four persons drowned during the Chattahoochee River Festival. Though a number of people were still unaccounted for Saturday night, there were no confirmed deaths.” —The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, May 25, 1980
In the end, there was only one drowning victim, from the night before the race.
HIGHTOWER It was technically called a “river festival” that year, but it wasn’t festive for a whole lot of people.
“‘We’re getting pretty disgusted with it,’ Cobb Civil Defense Director James Ray said. ‘We haven’t gotten any cooperation from anybody who staged this thing. We’ve been down there looking for these people since Saturday and not once has anyone from WQXI offered us any assistance or responded to our questions.’” —The Marietta Daily Journal, May 26, 1980
HOLMBERGWhen you start putting restrictions on alcohol—as the NPS did—and what you can or can’t do, people don’t come as much. Once you cut down on participation, you cut down on money. And then the sponsors go away. So that’s what happened.
“Larry Patrick notified state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Tanner that [the ARA’s] application to stage the race May 9 was being ‘regretfully withdrawn’ because of ‘DNR’s holding of the permit application for eight full weeks without a decision or an indication of direction’ from Tanner. ‘They just didn’t give us enough lead time,’ Patrick said later.”—The Atlanta Constitution, April 7, 1981
CHENEY It’s a shame it had to go away, but it probably had to. The mores changed; the times changed. It’s probably best it’s in the history books.
G. PATRICK If we’d had cell phones back then, it would have been a cinch.
SLOAN Long-term it was a good thing. It brought attention to the river—Georgia’s most important natural resource. Put Atlanta on the map, too.
RUSKIN One thing I learned from Larry is that if you have a passion for a dream, you can make it a reality. College kids turned a raft race into the largest cocktail party in the world! The old people at Johnny’s Hideaway still talk about it!
NBA legend and noted free-speaker Charles Barkley referred to your Atlanta Hawks as “Chihuahuas” last night. I learned about this via Twitter, because I’d turned off the volume on my television set midway through the third quarter of game four. I can’t stand the sound of ignominious defeat (118 to 88, if you must know) mediated through commentator voices. Especially the patronizing, backhanded compliments they toss off, like, “The Hawks had a terrific season, didn’t they?”
Well, yes, they did. But this inaugural first trip to the Eastern Conference finals wasn’t the way anyone wanted it to end. Game three was very close—and might have been won, if not for a terrible call against Al Horford—but game four was JV versus Varsity. There was one sequence, with three minutes left in the third quarter last night, when shooting guard Kent Bazemore (who did an otherwise admirable job of filling in for the gaping loss of Kyle Korver to injury) shot an airball for the Hawks, and Cavs center Timofey Mozgov came down and dunked it off of an alley-oop, without a smile crossing his Russian babyface. The Cavaliers are very good, but they looked like the Globetrotters last night.
The Hawks official Twitter account, like our shooters, just shot blanks: They could barely find anything positive to say about the first half. The best they could muster: “Not looking great, but we’ve been down before.”
LeBron James had a lot to do with what happened over the last week. He nearly averaged a triple double in this series against the Hawks. And his I’ve-been-here-before-who-are-you confidence was contagious, as the rest of his team caught fire. So distressing was their collective manhandling of the undersized Hawks that my girlfriend, Maria, had this honest exchange with me as the game came to a close:
MARIA: I think he’s on drugs.
ME: What kind of drugs?
MARIA: I don’t know. Human growth hormone? Speed?
ME: I think he’s just really good.
Too good, alas. The 2014-15 Hawks’ obituary appeared across the screen multiple times during timeouts last night: 60 wins (25 on the road), a 19-game winning steak (12 on the road), four all-stars, coach of the year. A terrific season all in all, like the talking head said. But not supreme satisfaction. Not what we’ve been waiting decades for, since many of us were children. It seems to me that the trick as a fan—and, perhaps, a human—is to convince yourself that you are on the path to ultimate glory. Whatever that may mean. Whether you are or not…well, who knows. But it’s fun to pretend. So let’s pin our hopes on those two words that 29-nine NBA teams and their fans say when they’ve played their last game: Next season.
I ran into former Hawks star Dikembe Mutombo after last night’s game, which isn’t hard to do considering that even among giants he’s a behemoth, standing 7 feet and 2 inches tall. “Why did we lose?” I asked him, shaking my head. “Because we quit,” he grumbled, shaking his much larger head.
So there you have it, folks: We lay down on the tracks in game two. Need we dissect the corpse that is the Atlanta Hawks basketball team right now? Let’s save ourselves the teeth-gnashing and the grief. Instead, I offer you 11 somewhat interesting things I learned tonight as the Hawks succumbed to the Cleveland Cavaliers 94-82, losing their second straight in the best of seven series, in a lackluster performance that may well spell doom.
LeBron James is huge man. Very physical, very talented, very alpha. He pushes his defenders around like they’re junior associates. And when he wins, he acts like he’s done it before. That said, does he really need a Sprite-mix named after him?
You have to rebound if you want to win. It’s physics: you must have the ball in order to score it. And you can’t have it if you don’t jump up in the air and get it when other people throw it at the hoop. Any questions?
When backup big man Pero Antic missed a shot, I heard for the first time in my life: “Send him back to Macedonia!” Do most people even know where Macedonia is?
Injuries continue to matter … for us. We lost sharpshooter Kyle Korver—who had a great first quarter—to an ankle sprain in the third quarter. Meanwhile, Cleveland didn’t have its all-star point guard Kyrie Irving, and it didn’t really matter.
Kent Bazemore may not be the greatest shooter, but he can drive and he can fly. He is also best cheerer on the team. I saw him give a few good man-hugs.
The closer you are to the court, the more likely it is that you are sitting next to someone who will vomit. The guy in front of me just kept going with the mixed drinks. And he kept flicking off bad play (see above photo) until he couldn’t stand up anymore. Then he stumbled to the bathroom.
The Hawks got this far by being an incredible passing team. Yet the ball as been “sticking” in the second half of each of the first two games. It needs to get unstuck.
I don’t understand why people pay good money for great seats and then leave with five minutes left, like anxious mourners at a wake. Then again, this one was ugly. I’ve only walked out of a movie once before it ended and this came close to being the Battlefield Earth of basketball games, if such a thing is possible.
You can’t beat a team with the best player in the world—who was one rebound away from a triple-double last night—when his supporting cast shoots over 50 percent from beyond the arc for most of the game. Also: fish can’t fly and most rappers can’t sing.
Shaquille O’Neal has a difficult time texting. I watched him, sitting nearby at the “Sprint Halftime Report” stage. His fingers are just too big.
There are hitchhikers on Peachtree Street. I picked up two of them after the game. They worked in production at Adult Swim, they said, and they’d had a few drinks. I took them to Argosy, in East Atlanta, for a few more. We needed it.
The parking attendants were dancing in the underground lots. “By five,” one said an hour before tip-off. “We got this game by five.”
And why not? Sure, our Hawks have never come this far before—to the Eastern Conference finals, the last rung in the ladder to basketball heaven—but everyone gets a day in the sun. And the opponent? The team from Cleveland with the guy whose name is known around the world, who has been to this advanced round of the playoffs six times before and won five of them? So what. Really. Zeus’s lightning bolts misfired sometimes, zapped him in the foot. That’s what we told ourselves as we packed into Philips Arena last night wearing our (a little too new) Hawks gear and our hearts on our red, white, blue, and silver sleeves.
We weren’t alone, either. Looking around, you could hurt your neck. There was NBA great and new team owner Grant Hill. And billionaire Spanx founder Sara Blakely, who also bought a share of the Hawks for fun. And Jerome Bettis, the hall of fame football player, who just wanted to watch. And, yes, that was Ludacris in the stunner shades not far from Floyd Mayweather, who didn’t betray his loyalties (if he has any) or the location of his Diamond Hermès HAC 50 Crocodile Money Bag (though it must have been nearby, to buy snacks). The rapper 2 Chainz sat courtside in what USA Today called a “resplendent poncho,” as did a bearded and bored-looking Ted Turner, with his legs crossed and his mouth mostly shut, beside mayor Kasim Reed, who was smiling ear-to-ear. Ted opened his eyes a bit wider during timeouts, when cheerleaders came out on the floor, but few words emerged. Or so it seemed from the squinty eyes of press row.
It was a big game, on home court. And for the first 24 minutes of the contest, the Hawks played like it was their Bar Mitzvah. Like the record 60 wins they earned this season were foreshadowing, not false hope. And the crowd roared with approval, reaching rare decibel levels, as the Hawks outscored the Cavaliers in the first quarter. My ears are still ringing.
In the first quarter, the Hawks shot 63 percent and the Cavaliers just 39 percent. LeBron got in foul trouble and Kyrie Irving—Cleveland’s magical point guard, LeBron’s Robin—appeared hobbled. This meant that Irving’s backup from down under would have to take over. That’s always a good thing. (Name an Aussie in the NBA. Thought so.) The second quarter was a fight, but we were all square at halftime: 51-51. Then, in the third quarter, J.R. Smith—the neck-tattooed, human question mark, who the Times kindly called “gifted and capricious“—started making three-pointers like his mother’s health depended on it. He ended up making eight of them, a Cavaliers playoff record for a single game. Meanwhile, the Hawks couldn’t grab a rebound; their best shooter, Kyle Korver, led them for much of the game with five. Not good.
Poker-faced point guard Jeff Teague was on his way to an easy-looking 27 points. Athletic backup shooting guard Kent Bazemore did an admirable impression of a starter, making a monstrous dunk in the waning moments of the third quarter. But it was the exclamation point on the end of an unhappy trio of sentences: The Hawks went cold in the second half! And LeBron pushed and shoved his way to 31 points! And the Hawks DeMarre “Junkard dog” Carroll went down with a gruesome-looking knee injury! Cows, provided by Chick-fil-A, fell unhappily from the sky.
The low-point for me came when a Cleveland fan, drunk and on the cusp of victory yelled towards me. I was wearing a grey T-shirt, which he supposed meant I was on his side.
“Hey Cleveland guy,” he said, gesturing at his phone. He wanted a picture.
“I’m not one of you,” I answered, turning back around to watch time expire on a 97-89 loss.
The sighs, as it turned out, could be heard around the world. Tip off was 6:15 a.m. in Nepal. Patrick Adams—a 36-year-old Atlanta writer and photographer reporting on public health in Kathmandu, got out of his tent at a quarter of six. “I’ve been sleeping in a house,” he said by email, “but because we had a decent aftershock yesterday, I opted for the tent next to the Pakistani refugees in our front yard.” A lifelong Hawks fan, he walked a mile to the Shangri-La Hotel, where he’d been when the largest earthquake shook the country a month ago. “The hotel has a decent Internet connection,” Adams wrote, “and the Japanese army medics had left the night before so it was quiet, but I didn’t have NBA League Pass. So I tuned into 92.9 The Game. Solid first half. But the second sounded like a disaster.”
The terrorist, as some have recently labeled her, is wearing librarian glasses, a formless black ankle-length dress, and sensible clogs.
It’s early November in Spokane, Washington, where she’s visiting family whom, just a few months ago, she feared she might never see again. A grandson is loudly pushing a toy truck toward her. She smiles at the boy, sending him scuttling away. Hunched over, hands folded in her lap, she is tiny but not timid. Like the virus that nearly killed her, she is resilient and misunderstood.
To be clear, Nancy Writebol, a 59-year-old former housewife and part-time high school registrar, is not a terrorist. She is zealous in the opposite way—for good. Nancy has spent the past 15 years traveling to some of the most despairing places in the world as a Christian missionary. Along with her husband, David—a retired financial software manager, whom she met when they were growing up in Evergreen, Colorado—she has helped build churches, hospitals, and schools in countries such as Zambia. Since 2013, they’ve worked under the aegis of a Charlotte-based missionary group called SIM, short for Serving in Mission. Nancy and David chose long ago not to keep a conventional home: “It’s wherever we are,” David says. And from August of 2013 until a year later, when Nancy was flown to Atlanta with a supposed threat to the human race growing inside her—prompting the terrorist claims—they lived and worked in Liberia, a country just a decade out of civil war where SIM has operated for 60 years. Liberia quickly became one of three West African countries plagued by what has been called “the most dangerous outbreak of an emerging infectious disease since the appearance of HIV.”
This was either good timing or bad, depending on your humanitarian spirit and your instinct for self-preservation. Nancy and David Writebol dug in.
On June 11, 2014, an ambulance pulled up to the tiny missionary hospital in Monrovia where the Writebols worked. Nancy was the personnel coordinator for SIM, and Liberia’s ministry of health had called to say the ambulance was on its way with dangerous cargo: Ebola patients. Walking toward the car, she saw that there were three passengers inside—two adults and a child. The oldest, a man, had died on the way over. His grown-up niece got out and said in Liberian-accented English, “I don’t want to be in an ambulance with a dead person.” Then she lay down on the ground outside the hospital. It began to rain. The child disappeared with the driver.
Before taking the woman into their jury-rigged isolation unit on a stretcher, doctors suited up in PPE—personal protective equipment, which included a full-body suit made from white Tyvek fabric, a plastic face shield and breathing mask, goggles, latex and rubber gloves, rubber boots, and a plastic apron—as Nancy watched to make sure it was done correctly. This could take half an hour. “Normally, Liberians didn’t care how long things took,” she says. “But when it came to the hospital, families got very angry if you didn’t wait on them immediately.”
During the coming weeks, ambulances and taxis would arrive with confirmed Ebola patients and then leave with them when they weren’t cared for fast enough. The infected would go back to their villages, where the disease would spread.
Like all but one of the 34 Ebola patients the little hospital saw from June 11 until July 22 of 2014, the woman in that first ambulance died—despite receiving the best improvised care SIM could muster. There were no tears of blood or melting organs, as described in The Hot Zone, Richard Preston’s riveting but at times hyperbolic 1994 narrative of the disease’s emergence in central Africa. But the reality was nightmarish enough: zombie-like humans covered in strange rashes, vomiting, excreting black diarrhea, moaning in excruciating pain, and dying at a rate beyond 90 percent.
Discovered in 1976, Ebola is an ancient filovirus that at first resembles less serious fevers, like malaria and typhoid. But it can soon cause rapid deterioration of organ function and ultimately death. Ebola, named after a river near where the virus was first isolated, is infectious and, to a degree, contagious: Though a tiny amount of the virus can kill, it isn’t as transmissible as the flu. It can’t travel through the air.
The current outbreak is believed to have begun in December 2013, in the village of Meliandou in the West African country of Guinea. The suspected first case: a two-year-old boy who had contact with a nonhuman Ebola host—possibly a fruit bat. The virus spread to his family and eventually other humans in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and, by importation, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Spain, and the United States. (As of late November, there had been 10 cases of Ebola in the U.S., four of whom were diagnosed here, and two deaths.)
On August 8, 2014, the director-general of the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” By the end of November, the WHO reported more than 5,900 Ebola deaths worldwide—confirmed, probable, and suspected—and more than 16,000 cases. It’s the largest Ebola outbreak in history.
The Writebols, of course, didn’t know any of this when they arrived in 2013; Ebola wasn’t even a remote concern at the time. But by April, when word of the disease and its effects began to filter around them in Liberia—a sick woman vomiting from a motorcycle taxi across Monrovia; doctors attacked by paranoid locals in nearby Guinea—they grew concerned enough to take action.
Isolation is the best way to contain Ebola, which spreads through the exchange of bodily fluids, so they helped create an isolation unit using SIM’s stand-alone chapel on the 130-acre campus. It’s a small, concrete-block structure with doors on each side. Using curtained partitions, they created six bedded areas. They had electricity, but garden hoses were run inside for water. Medical supplies—decontamination solutions, for instance—were stored in a dressing room. Traffic flow was marked out. Latrines were cordoned off for disposing of infectious waste. And vision barriers were erected so people outside wouldn’t have to see the dying.
As demand for isolation increased, Nancy began training locals to help out at the unit. A young man named Bobby showed up in mid-July to become a hygienist; he helped with the donning and doffing of doctor and nurse PPEs, mixing bleach, and decontaminating and disposing of dangerous items. But it soon became apparent something was wrong with Bobby. Admitted to the isolation unit on July 26, he died days later, a frightening glimpse of what possibly lay in store for Nancy.
“I knew what malaria felt like,” she says, recalling her first symptoms. “So I just thought that’s what it was.” She took a malaria test on July 22: positive. A SIM doctor named Debbie Eisenhut thought Nancy wasn’t responding well to the prescribed medication, though—still feverish, feeling bad—so Nancy took another malaria test on the 25th: negative. The next morning, to be safe, she tried an Ebola test. Her blood sample was transported to the National Reference Laboratory of Liberia, an hour from the capital, near the airport. Lab workers processed the samples in a biohazard level four laboratory wearing full PPE. Testing took five hours.
That same day, David, SIM’s director of technical services, had his hands full attempting to fix water, sewage, and electricity problems that had arisen as they tried to ramp up capacity for more patients. He also started preparing to evacuate nonessential SIM personnel, all the while contending with local protests. Another missionary group, Samaritan’s Purse, was trying to build a 60-bed isolation unit nearby, but demonstrators were fighting it: Don’t bring more Ebola here!
Nancy was the least of his worries. “I was busy,” David says, “not even thinking about her. She was at home, comfortable, resting. It was just a fever.”
That night, he prepared fettuccine Alfredo for his wife and Eisenhut. The three ate together at a small table in the Writebols’ two-bedroom, cinder-block home, built in the 1950s to house missionaries. Afterward, David and Eisenhut went to a special meeting for all the missionaries on the campus. But before the meeting began, Eisenhut returned a call from a Samaritan’s Purse doctor. She then pulled David aside: Kent Brantly has Ebola. And Nancy does too. I’m so sorry.
David walked across the yard back to the house: How am I going to tell her? And our sons? Nancy was in bed. First, he told her that their friend and colleague, Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, had Ebola. “And so do you.”
“Both of us knew the trajectory of the disease,” David says. “At that point, there wasn’t much else to say.”
David reached out to hold his wife, but she stopped him. “Don’t,” she said.
He moved into a nearby apartment, where he was monitored for symptoms. None of his things—pillow, clothes, Bible—could come with him. They were all potentially contaminated.
By July 28, two days after her diagnosis was confirmed, the virus had made Nancy “weaker and weaker,” she says. “There was diarrhea, constantly. Paralyzing fatigue.” It was moving quickly through her organs. It’s said that Ebola takes longer to cure than it does to die from. One night, David came into what had been their home, wearing PPE, and placed his hand on her leg. The pain from the mere touch was so intense, she moaned.
One of the first things David did, after calling their two sons with the news, was reach out to Bruce Johnson, the head of SIM, in Charlotte. Johnson immediately went to Samaritan’s Purse headquarters in Boone, North Carolina, so that the two groups could coordinate plans. “In the early stages, we didn’t know a way that we could get them out safely,” Johnson says. “We didn’t even know if they’d be healthy enough to travel.” No charter company would take these passengers on. Commercial was out. So was military.
So how do we take care of them here? David thought. And, in the event that they don’t survive, what will we do with their bodies? They couldn’t be brought back to the U.S., he was told, unless they were cremated.
On Thursday, July 31, Brantly was given an experimental Ebola drug called ZMapp, a combination of three mouse-human antibodies grown in tobacco plants that seemed effective in killing Ebola in monkeys, though the drug had never been tested on humans before. Three plastic bottles of the stuff happened to be sitting in a medical freezer in Sierra Leone, left there the previous month by a Canadian researcher who wanted to see if ZMapp held up in tropical climes. Africans who’d since contracted Ebola—including a prominent Sierra Leone doctor—had not been given the untested Western drug; if it had killed the doctor, the thinking went, the local population might have claimed it was a sinister Western plot.
In any case, the medical director at Samaritan’s Purse, stationed in Liberia, had sent for the drug after long discussions with Brantly about his options. Brantly was willing to give it a try because it had worked on monkeys. So was Nancy. The next day, she took the cocktail. Two days later, she took another dose. That was all there was.
Meanwhile, the two missionary groups had cobbled together an exit plan, which involved the participation or consent of: the U.S. State Department, the CDC, local departments of health in the U.S., a specialized American charter company, the Liberian government, the governments of neighboring countries (“some were not warm and fuzzy about Ebola flying over,” David says), and Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital, where they’d be flown separately.
Brantly flew to Atlanta on August 2. Three days later, Nancy Writebol was placed on a baggage conveyor belt and raised, wearing full PPE, into a one-of-a-kind airplane operated by Cartersville-based Phoenix Air Group. Phoenix is the only air carrier in the world with an airborne biological containment system—a plastic tent, essentially—that allows the company to transport patients with highly contagious diseases.
“I remember when they took me to the airport,” Nancy says. “I couldn’t walk. The medic who was putting me on the conveyor belt stopped it, put his hands around my face, and said, ‘Nancy, we’re taking you home. We’re gonna take really good care of you.’” At the top of the belt, Nancy put her feet on the medic’s feet, and he walked her like a child into the isolation pod. That’s the last thing, other than extreme thirst, that Nancy remembers from her 15-hour flight back to the U.S.
Touching down at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, they rushed Nancy to Emory. It was August 5. She and Brantly were now the first ever Ebola patients to be treated in the United States.
The call to Dr. Bruce Ribner came on July 30, but it wasn’t from the U.S. State Department, who had visited—without once mentioning Ebola—just two days prior. It was from a physician with Phoenix Air: I don’t know if you’ve been told this, but we’re sending our plane over to West Africa to pick up two missionary healthcare workers infected with Ebola. They’re coming to Emory.
As director of the Serious Communicable Disease Unit (SCDU) at Emory University Hospital, Ribner had received plenty of unexpected calls in his day. But this was a bit of a shocker, even for him. The Ebola patients would require the hospital’s special isolation unit for serious communicable diseases, which he’d helped create a dozen years earlier. This would be the unit’s greatest test yet, and he welcomed it.
“There were lots of feelings,” Ribner says. “You know, Gee, this is gonna be neat. We’ve had this unit here for 12 years now, and people were having serious doubts about whether there was a role for it. So I felt vindicated; it was a good thing we have this here. And part of it also was, I know we have all this planning, but it’ll be interesting to see if anything changes over the next two days. Because sometimes when reality hits, people change the algorithms.”
The first thing he did was send emails to his five-person physician team, three key nurses who oversaw a group of 21 nurses, and a few higher-ups at the hospital. The subject line was something like “Activation of Unit.” The message, in essence: I’ve just been notified that we’re getting patients with Ebola virus disease. The patients are estimated to arrive here Friday or Saturday. We need to activate the unit.
Twelve years ago, there was some hesitancy when Ribner proposed opening this unit, which charges two dozen doctors and nurses with the treatment of diseases like avian influenza, SARS, and anthrax: Would it be useful? Would it be safe? Twice a year for the past several years, they’ve trained, learning about modes of transmission, transportation, screening protocols, supplies, PPE protocols, waste management, treatment options, and how to communicate with other agencies. The Department of Defense has conducted field exercises at the unit, and Emory has twice activated the unit for what turned out to be false alarms: a CDC worker with suspected SARS and another with suspected Marburg virus.
“Everyone was ready and fully on board with the plan,” Ribner says.
When the SCDU is activated, all the unit’s doctors and nurses convene to review the disease in question. With Ebola, they had three days. “Obviously,” Ribner says, “I don’t expect our nurses to be very knowledgeable about a disease they’ve never treated or frankly thought much about, beyond the movie Outbreak.” They went over the infection—how it’s transmitted, what interventions can make the patient better. They reviewed PPE protocols, too, which took most of one day.
Unlike medical workers in Liberia, the suits worn by SCDU personnel included a fan inside a helmet, known as a “papper” (from PAPR, powered air purifying respirator). “We trained on that outfit for eight hours,” says Haley Durr. “It was very rigorous. There were people who didn’t make the cut. If you can’t keep yourself safe, you’re a risk to others.” (At Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas, two nurses wearing PPE contracted Ebola in September from a Liberian patient who died there. Both nurses survived.)
Meanwhile, Ribner oversaw a review of the SCDU’s waste management system—there would be concerns from county authorities and citizens alike about contamination—while simultaneously taking part in administrative meetings, media communication meetings, “all sorts of meetings,” he says, “to figure out how we were going to deal with this episode as an institution.” Keeping the virus from spreading was, obviously, a major concern. Anything contaminated with Ebola would be disinfected, autoclaved with high-pressure steam, incinerated, and—in the case of actual human waste, after disinfection—simply flushed down the toilet.
He says he slept plenty, despite all this and the hate mail he received once the story of Emory’s involvement with Ebola broke. “Nothing that was personally threatening,” Ribner says, “beyond accusing me of being a mass murderer.”
A nurse cut off Nancy’s clothes, the only ones she had; everything else had been left in Liberia. The nurse asked Nancy to say her name and where she thought she was. All Nancy could muster: I’m in a hospital somewhere.
Kent Brantly, who had walked in on his own three days earlier, watched the medics wheel Nancy into an isolation room facing his. He was still suffering badly, but he could tell that she was in perhaps even worse shape; she looked at him without a seeming glimmer of recognition.
Lifted onto a bed, she looked around, dazed; this seemed just like any first-world hospital room, maybe more isolated. There was all the standard equipment: heart rate monitors, respirators, and a TV, too, which she didn’t watch for a week. She slept, vaguely aware of time passing, complaining of bad dreams.
“Every organ system in her body was being ravaged,” Ribner says.
From the moment she arrived, Nancy was under constant supervision. One nurse wearing PPE stayed in the room with her—they took four- to six-hour shifts—while another observed from behind the protective glass of the attached anteroom: charting vitals on a computer, calling for medications, making assessments. Nancy’s electrolyte levels were low, bordering on life-threatening. Nurses administered sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium immediately. Her veins had begun to collapse from dehydration, so fluids were pumped in through an IV. Her blood platelets were replaced by transfusion. She had high fever and irregular heart rhythms, too. Individually these were not all major concerns, but collectively they could be fatal.
The rotating team of five doctors and 21 nurses did more than simply stick needles and tubes in her arms. Durr recalls long conversations and gloved foot massages: “Her feet were very hot and swollen,” Durr says. “We rubbed them for hours using lotion, wrapping them with cold washcloths and ice. She told us about working in Africa.”
The nurses saw themselves as pioneers. “We were trailblazers, innovators with this disease,” says Carolyn Hill, the SCDU nursing director. “To do that and do it well, that was exciting.”
“We’d gone through rigorous training,” says Josiah Mamora, “and were ready to treat actual Ebola patients. In West Africa, they were in very deep isolation, and we became their first contact. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
David had stayed back in Liberia and isolated himself. He and Nancy spoke on the phone daily. She told him she didn’t feel alone. She had the nurses, her two visiting sons, the prayers of strangers, and the Lord. She felt God often, and two Bible verses in particular comforted her: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” and “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
God is good all the time, she told herself. He is good if I live, and good if I die.
One of the doctors came into Nancy’s room and said as she lay there, Why do you think we brought you here?
To be nice?
So do you think you’ll live?
I don’t think so. I don’t know.
You’re not dying on my watch, he replied.
Brantly and Nancy helped keep each other alive, too. “We talked about our symptoms, the diarrhea,” she says. “We’d laugh and say, ‘No one else can talk about this.’ It was good to be able to debrief with him. I could share about being angry at someone in the hospital. We could be really frank with one another.”
That included occasional griping about the food. The typical ICU diet, which they were given, began with clear liquids upon admission, graduated to soft pureed foods, and then on to more standard fare. The tipping point in Nancy’s recovery, it seemed to Mamora, “was when she wanted Sun Chips.”
For Nancy, it was maybe 10 days into treatment, when she decided to take a shower. “That’s when I knew life was returning,” she says.
Toward the end of their stay, the mother of one doctor in the unit made Brantly and Nancy homemade Indian: a curry dish, spiced cauliflower, naan, chapati. Nancy ate it for lunch and then dinner.
Ribner admits he wasn’t sure either patient would make it when they arrived. He attributes their survival to something we all take for granted: simple first-world care. “Every Ebola patient treated in the U.S. and Western Europe received magic potions. But at the end of the day, it’s just good supportive care, no different than what you give someone with influenza: monitoring body functions closely and correcting abnormalities as they occur.”
In the end, SIM and Samaritan’s Purse paid more than $2 million in healthcare and travel costs for the treatment of Nancy Writebol and Kent Brantly, who have, after a brief medical recess, returned to lives of missionary work.
Nancy Writebol had Ebola, which is much different from having Ebola. But that distinction has been lost on the American public in recent months. And so it is that Nancy’s harrowing journey from missionary to American medical anomaly has ended with her being dubbed a terrorist by some, treated like a leper by others.
In early November, a Denver TV station asked to interview the Writebols, who were in town visiting David’s relatives, about Nancy’s experience with the virus. The couple agreed to the interview but quickly regretted it. “The anchor came down to greet us in the lobby,” Nancy says. “He walked in and said, ‘I’ve been asked not to shake your hand or give you a hug. Furthermore, we’re going to do this interview in the park.’”
Even at their church back in Charlotte, where they’ve worshiped on and off for years, people have been frightened. “I went to greet someone,” Nancy says, “and she put her hands up. I was so dumb about the whole thing; I wasn’t even thinking this means ‘Stay away!’” Now she lets people offer their own hands first. It seems easier. “But it’s still very awkward for me. Because that’s not the kind of person I am.”
This story originally appeared in our January 2015 issue.
This morning, U.S. District Court Judge B. Avant Edenfield sentenced Aubrey Lee Price—the Georgia pastor who became an investment adviser, then a banker, then a fugitive—to a maximum of 30 years in prison stemming from a Ponzi scheme that evoked comparisons to the one masterminded by Bernie Madoff. The amount of restitution Price will owe to those he swindled is still to be determined, though it will likely be in the $46 million range.
Beginning in 2011, Price was a director of the now defunct Montgomery Bank & Trust in Ailey, Georgia, and that remained his chief occupation until he disappeared on June 16, 2012—presumed dead by many, including his family. Price left behind suicide notes, a wife, four children, and a long-suffering community bank on the brink of failure.
In an exclusive series of jailhouse interviews with Atlanta magazine last February and March, Price claimed that he was a drug runner, a pimp, and a cage fighter, among other unlikely vocations, during what he called his “departure” from the seemingly simple and successful life he’d known for four and a half decades. His supposed aliases included Jason, Diesel, and Gator, and he confessed to taking cocaine, smoking marijuana, and becoming addicted to Adderall while on the lam.
On December 31, 2013, 18 months after faking his death by appearing to jump off a Key West ferry, Price was pulled over in Brunswick, Georgia, for driving a truck with illegally tinted windows. He eventually pleaded guilty to one count each of securities fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud.
During today’s sentencing, Price—clean-cut, but shrunken and pale—spoke for nearly 45 minutes, asking for leniency, spending more time defending his actions than taking responsibility for them: “The problem is, we didn’t know some things about the bank,” he said. “Some things were hidden from us.” He continually attempted to shift the narrative: “My story will be about restitution. The only life I have left is future life. The past is gone.”
But for his victims, of course, the past is very much part of the present. Some 20 of them—investors in PFG, the investment firm Price founded before taking control of the bank in Ailey—were in court, and three spoke at the sentencing, two expressing palpable anger. A former Delta employee named Mary Jo Peters, 65, had known Price for a decade and considered him both an adviser and a friend before learning of his deceit and her crippling losses. “He murdered my future,” Peters said. “My life is now forever changed and will not get better. It’s like he gave me an incurable disease.”
Another, Sherry Thomason, 64, asked the court to show Price mercy, despite having lost all $500,000 of her and her husband’s retirement savings through placing her trust in his schemes. “Financially, the loss was incomprehensible,” she said, “and emotionally it was heartbreaking. We believe we were victims. But we don’t believe [Price] intended to swindle us. And we take him at his word that he is repentant now. We ask the court to consider leniency.”
The hard facts in the case, including admissions by Price himself, made that difficult. In an unpublished memoir—a draft of which he provided to Atlanta magazine—Price admitted that he “deceitfully devised a plan to use the bank’s securities account, and began trading those funds with hopes of making bigger returns to build the bank’s capital back up and pay investors back.” At the same time, he claimed he too was a victim: Both in his interview with Atlanta magazine and before Judge Edenfield, Price claimed he’d been duped into investing in the doomed middle Georgia bank by Pete Robinson, a friend and adviser of Governor Nathan Deal, who is related to the bank’s founders. Price’s crimes have led to a slew of civil lawsuits, some of which involve Robinson, and will likely drag on for years.
Many things in this case continue to be hard to believe: a preacher known for his mission and his charity work fleecing his flock; the same man fleeing the law and allegedly going into business with a cocaine cartel operator in South America; and then heading back to the States to start a small-time marijuana grow operation, which he described to me as “one of the best times of my life.” But most difficult to swallow: the notion that Price, nearing fifty, will ever repay the tens of millions of dollars of his clients’ money that he squandered.
While in custody in Statesboro’s Bulloch County Jail back in February, Price articulated one possible restitution plan—a job as, yes, a research analyst for hedge funds. From prison. “I have three job offers already,” he told me then. “I think I could make a half million a year writing incredible research. Once I study and get a rhythm of the market, I’m pretty good. I ain’t gonna lie about that. I was accurate more than 53 percent of the time. Right now I’ve got several trades I’d like to put out there, but I’m not going to. I want to make money on them myself. One is the trade of a lifetime.”
Not surprisingly, when I prodded him for details, Price demurred. “No, I’m not giving up my information quite yet.” His family, he said, were his greatest concern: “My wife brings home $2,300 a month from her teacher salary. I need to help her, my kids, my dad. I will find a job. There are lots of things I can do. I can get certified as a tax preparer. I could do my former clients’ taxes for them for free. But I want credit.” He paused. “Or I can sit on my ass and just die in prison. Not help anybody. I can do that. I’m embarrassing myself, letting people know the sins of my life. I should get compensated the right way. Maybe save half of one percent for me to pay my other debts and have something for when I get out. If I get out.”
In court were Price’s wife and three of their four children. From their seats in the third row of benches, they showed little emotion and spoke infrequently among themselves. They looked, collectively, like the resigned victims of an emotional siege. They declined to speak to the media.
Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, the money chasers are still chasing the money. On October 21, five of Price’s former hedge fund clients won an arbitration award of more than $800,000, collectively, against FSC Securities Corporation—a brokerage firm that once employed Price—for its failure to prevent its brokers from funneling millions in FSC customer accounts to Price Financial Group. The majority of his victims, however, remain wanting.
According to the court-appointed receiver’s most recent status report, filed in late July, insurance companies are fighting to recover the more than $1.8 million in life insurance proceeds they paid following Price’s faked death. There are also ongoing disputes between the receivership and the FDIC about its role in the bank’s collapse, and attempts to obtain and sell farms in Venezuela purchased by Price, as well as a property he owned on Florida’s Longboat Key and a number of other minor real estate holdings. More than $1.6 million is due to the receiver from KM Homes, an Atlanta homebuilder tied to Price, by the end of this year. The receivership has thus far collected more than $2.4 million in cash. But lawyer fees are taking a big chunk out of that; the receiver, Melanie Damian, incurred more than $165,000 in fees during just a three-month period ending in July.
Michael Smith, a victim in his sixties who spoke before the court today—at one point loudly admonishing Price with the commandment “Thou shalt not steal”—was content with the sentence. “He’ll be in jail until long after I’m gone,” Smith said.
“Awesome,” Wendy Cross, a food truck operator who lives in Decatur and who lost $364,000 to Price, said of the verdict. “I wanted him to get a year for every million that he stole.” She couldn’t talk long. The lunch rush was arriving.
The question, for some, remains: Why would a man once beloved by his family, friends, and parishioners lie for so long, about matters of such importance? Federal prosecutor Brian Rafferty, speaking at the end of today’s hearing, offered an answer: “He’s been lying to people for days, months, years. He woke up every morning with a new lie. But the curious thing about this case is: He didn’t do it for greed. There’s no evidence of that. He’s here now because of his own pride and arrogance. He couldn’t admit that he just wasn’t good at what he did.”
Shaking a bit as his sentence was read, Price walked quickly out of the courtroom, never once glancing back at his family.
Of the many clubs around town that lead like-minded strangers on outdoor adventures—by foot, bike, or kayak—there’s one that dwarfs them all. The Atlanta Outdoor Club organizes events every day of the week, at as many as a dozen spots each weekend, from local gems like Sope Creek and Kennesaw Mountain to bucket-list destinations like the German Alps.
Since its start in 2000, the club has hosted some 7,000 events for its nearly 3,000 members across the state. Most are hikes. If you’re single and looking to mingle, some stats to consider: A third of members are over fifty, and 58 percent are female.
But plenty are just looking for new friends and exercise. Four years ago, Joyce Taaffe joined after retiring from Wheeler High, where she’d taught in a windowless classroom for the past ten years. As of mid-August, she’d attended 762 AOC events, an all-time record that works out to roughly four events each week.
“It became my nonpaying job,” jokes Taaffe. “I’ve made so many friends, many of whom I spend time with outside the club. It’s like a big family. I’ve seen three or four marriages that started on hikes.” And, well, numerous breakups.
Trips are rated in difficulty from D1 to D7, and each has an AOC leader—a sort of mountain monarch—with his or her own agenda. Some will wait a half hour for stragglers to arrive at a given trailhead, and others won’t delay a minute. Some enjoy bushwhacking. Some prefer paved trails. Dogs aren’t always welcome. In other words, there’s something for everyone. Sign up at atlantaoutdoorclub.com. It’s free.
This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.
There is one backcountry inn only accessible by foot in Georgia. Starting from a parking lot above Amicalola Falls, it’s a beautiful, fairly easy five-mile walk through a mossy forest just ninety minutes north of Atlanta.
On a recent weekend, I arrived with my girlfriend around 5 p.m., in time for a tour. Named for the Georgia botanist, ecologist, and author, the inn is owned by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources—where Foote once served as a board member—but run by a nonprofit, the Appalachian Education and Recreation Services.
A four-season lodge, it became the first LEED-certified building in Georgia in 2002, several years after its construction. It uses little power and produces minimal waste for its size: twenty rooms with bunk beds (each big enough to fit two) and radiant heat panels for winter. You’ll find composting toilets, worms for food scraps, photovoltaic solar panels, a hike-in-hike-out trash policy, and a passive solar water heater that saves 60 percent compared with conventional heating methods.
My favorite part of the inn is the “star base,” a celestial calendar made from rocks (think Machu Picchu in miniature) sitting below the main lodge and surrounded by chairs for sunrise viewing. A drumbeat alerts light sleepers of the rising sun each morning. For everyone else, a bell rings just before eight, announcing that it’s time for a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, grits, and, if you’re lucky, spoonbread.
We met an AIDS activist, a physical therapist, and a Cuban refugee over a communal dinner of baked ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, and cake. (An on-site crew carries in and cooks food.) Alcohol isn’t served or encouraged, but the unofficial flask policy is “bring enough to share.” After dinner, you can take the flask outside for cornhole, head to the game room, listen to a naturalist give a talk, or marvel at stars you’d all but forgotten about. From $107 single occupancy, $150 double; hike-inn.com
This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.
Getting mauled by a bear
Although they can exceed 500 pounds and run 30 miles per hour, wild black bears are generally skittish and won’t approach humans. A bear attack has never been recorded in Georgia, but you can carry a whistle or bear spray if you’re paranoid. How likely is it on a scale of 1-5? 0
Getting poison ivy
Some 50 percent of the adult population is allergic to urushiol oil in poison ivy—the plant with three-leaf clusters that can cause itchy rashes. It’s found year-round all over Georgia, so wear long pants if you’re in the brush, and watch for the dastardly weed. Wash yourself quickly in a stream if you touch any. How likely is it on a scale of 1-5? 3
Getting a tick-bourne disease
Lyme is prevalent above the Mason-Dixon line but quite rare below it. Although there were three times as many confirmed cases of Lyme in Georgia in 2012 than 2003, the number of cases two years ago totaled just thirty-one. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be transmitted in Georgia, but that, too, is very rare. Do a tick check in the shower after visiting the woods. How likely is it on a scale of 1-5? 1
Getting bitten by a snake
There are six species of venomous snakes in Georgia, including the copperhead, the cottonmouth, and the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. The cold-blooded slitherers are most active in summer and all but disappear in winter. There are no publicly available stats on snake bites, but the anecdotal evidence suggests you needn’t worry: Jonah McDonald hiked dozens of trails in the state (including all the ones on our list) multiple times in two years and saw only a few snakes. Just stay on the trail and watch where you step. How likely is it on a scale of 1-5? 1
Running into fugitives
My dad swears Eric Rudolph broke into our well-stocked family cabin a few hours from Atlanta when the Olympic Park bomber was on the run in the late nineties; an unknown burglar took only a bag of rice and a bowie knife. Crimes and tragedies do occur in the woods, as they do anywhere, but they are few and far between. Still, hiking using the buddy system is always advised for safety (more for ankle twists than anything). How likely is it on a scale of 1-5? 0
This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.
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