OCONEE COUNTY, SC — Trapped below the surface, she waits, and waits, while a roaring river and a raging controversy swirl above her head.

Six weeks have passed since 16-year-old Rachel Trois and her boyfriend stepped into the Chattooga River, two adventurous teens on a hike through the Blue Ridge Mountains, trying to hopscotch across the same rocks and hurtling rapids featured in the film "Deliverance."

Eight feet below the froth she lies, in a crack that gargles the current like a gaping mouth.

Suddenly, Rachel slipped. The river swept her downstream, slid her over a 6-foot drop, then pulled her under. Her boyfriend slipped, too, but Rachel's body probably blocked him from a fatal whirlpool, enabling him to swim ashore.

Rescuers know where Rachel is: [eight] feet below the river's froth, in a rock formation that gargles the current like a gaping mouth. But reaching her remains has proved too great a task for even the most rugged on the river.

Most are ready to call it off.

The problem is, Rachel's father won't let them.

"I have a very simple thing I want to do here," says Joseph Trois of Leesport, Pa., where Rachel was looking forward to her summer job at the local pool after her brief Southern vacation. "I want to get that girl out of the river."

If getting her out means moving Heaven and Earth, and stopping one of the Earth's oldest rivers, and parting a sea of red tape, so be it.

If getting her out means moving Heaven and Earth and parting a sea of red tape, so be it.

His determination, combined with the deadly waters of the Chattooga, has complicated an already agonizing situation. Rescuers want to help a grieving father reclaim his daughter. But they don't want to help the Chattooga claim another life. Rachel was its 35th victim in the past 29 years.

Also, the Chattooga is protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. One of the last free-flowing rivers in the South, it's a natural wonder, as lovely as it is deadly, a mean-spirited marvel that drops through a gorge at 180 feet per mile in some spots. By congressional mandate, it must be maintained "in free-flowing condition."

Already, one temporary dam has been built as part of the rescue effort. Should a bigger dam be built, requiring more holes drilled into the bedrock, some in the nearby town of Clayton, Ga., say the rights of future generations and the needs of nature will have been set aside for the sake of one family.

Rescuers at River's Mercy
Under the best circumstances, Joseph Trois is a man of few words. Faced with a stubborn river that refuses to release his daughter, and confronted by people who respect a river that does what it wants, he can barely speak.

"I am frustrated, yes," said Trois, a businessman. "I don't come from that area, I don't know all those little things going on there. I have no agenda, other than to get my daughter out of the river."

The rescue team pulled back to wait for the river to fall. Maybe next week. Maybe next year.

The first step was obvious. Rescuers hovered above the spot where Rachel was last seen, May 29, while dogs and underwater cameras determined precisely where she was.

"She's in a 10-foot cone-shaped hole, feet first," said Henry Gordon, head of emergency preparedness in Oconee County, on the South Carolina side of the Chattooga, which forms a ragged border with Georgia.

In a steady rain, the river rising and crashing around them, divers made four tries at dislodging Rachel. The current was so fierce it tore the masks from their faces.

Following standard procedure, the rescue team pulled back to wait for the water to fall. Maybe next week. Maybe next year. "The river will let us know when we can get her out," said Dave Perrin, a guide for 20 years on the Chattooga. "The river has always given up its dead."

As the makeshift dam gave, one man was hurled against the rocks. Another went barreling toward the same whirlpool that grabbed Rachel.

But Trois wouldn't give up his daughter. He found a New Jersey company, Portadam Inc., which volunteered to dam the Chattooga just long enough for divers to grab Rachel. The idea was furiously debated among rescuers. Tempers flared. A fistfight nearly broke out.

So Trois sought out the senior senator from South Carolina and asked him to pressure the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the river. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., whose 22-year-old daughter died in a car accident six years ago, wasted no time.

Do whatever it takes, he told Forest Service officials.

Despite the danger, despite concerns for the river's pristine condition, Forest Service officials permitted the dam. "We don't feel it violated the Wild River Act," said Forest Service spokesman Randy Burgess.

Finding someone in the area who disagrees isn't difficult.

The dam not only failed, it nearly led to disaster. While stretching the metal-and-fabric apparatus across the river, rescuers were swept away. As the dam gave, one man was hurled against the rocks. Another went barreling toward the same whirlpool that grabbed Rachel.

"He had to go sit in the woods, he was so freaked out," said Buzz Williams, a former river guide who now heads the Chattooga River Watershed Coalition, which tries to fend off man-made threats to the river — among them, he said, grieving families.

Aside from the wisdom of risking more lives, Williams questioned the legal right of Forest Service officials to alter the river in any way, no matter how small: "The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act says the river shall not be altered. They went down with a jackhammer and drilled 20 holes for this dam."

"The river's treachery is part of its beauty"
a view that grieving families don't share.

"I think both a third-grader and a federal judge would agree with me, that's altering."

"It's not so much that drilling these holes is a big deal," he said, "except I know where this is going to lead. It gives purchase to those who argue we need to alter these places. Are they going to argue to pour concrete in the holes? ... Turn rescue operations loose with the mandate to put in dams that require drilling holes in bedrock? Where does this end?"

The river's treachery is part of its beauty, Williams says, a point of view that grieving families don't share. He understands. It's when the politicians don't see that he worries.

Williams got a letter from Thurmond. If the river is so unsafe that rescuers can't reach Rachel, the letter said, maybe it's time to declare the river off-limits.

Williams shudders. Only through access, he says, can people learn about the river's beauty, and its fragility.

"If [Thurmond's] going to restrict access to a place Congress has set aside for you to go and enjoy," he said, "he's taking away a fundamental right this country was built on."

My girl is in the water. We want her out. That's as simple as I can make it.

Forest Service officials haven't said what the next step will be, whether they'll wait for the water level to drop, or make another attempt soon. Portadam is ready to try again, with a taller dam, and many locals say the company should be given free rein. Something, anything, should be done.

Trois works at it every day: phoning senators, rescuers, whomever. "It's a job," he said, and the job helps dam the grief, though he knows that when Rachel is free, the grief will wash over him like a raging current.

"I'm keeping my emotions in check so I can accomplish this," he said. "My girl is in the water. We want her out. That's as simple as I can make it."


Four days after this article was published, the Chattooga dropped to its lowest levels in a month, allowing divers access to the rocks in which Rachel Trois had become wedged.

But the rapids had finally done what rescue workers and political pressure could not — the girl's body was gone. No one knows when the river released her, or where the waters took her.

The girl was gone. No one knows when or where the river took her.

Finally, after ten tedious days of dredging, divers pulled a bathing suit from the Chattooga River along with some partial human remains. Rachel's parents have identified the suit as hers, although the Oconee County Coroner's office will have to wait another ten days for a positive DNA identification. Funeral services have been set for the 6th of August.