By Matt Wiley
The body of a New Tampa man has finally been recovered, following a whitewater rafting accident and 17-day search of the Chattooga Wild & Scenic River in South Carolina.
Thomas P. Hill, 51, a Hunter’s Green resident and a Sherwin-Williams Tampa district sales manager, fell out of a raft during a whitewater rafting trip on the Chattooga on June 19 in Oconee County near Long Creek, SC, which is located along the state’s border with Georgia. Hill had been in Helen, GA, to attend a Sherwin-Williams sales conference.
According to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Hill’s body was recovered around 11:30 a.m. on July 5, following more than two weeks of failed attempts to retrieve and return his body to his wife Linda and four children in New Tampa.
“We believe that high flows on the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River freed Mr. Hill’s body so that he could begin his journey home to his family,” said USFS spokeswoman Michelle Burnett during a July 5 press conference. “Since this effort began, our main objective has been to safely recover Mr. Hill. Every day, Mr. Hill’s family has been foremost in our minds and our hearts go out to Mr. Hill’s wife and his children. We hope that our efforts will finally bring some closure to the Hill family.”
USFS reports that on June 19, Hill was taking part in a guided whitewater rafting trip put on by Southeastern Expeditions, a company that provides tours of the river, when he and three others fell off of the raft. All of the rafters were wearing helmets and life jackets, but Hill was not found and is believed to have gotten caught in a rapid, where he drowned.
Crews searched for as long as possible, but were unable to locate his body the first day and struggled against the weather and unpredictable water levels along the river to recover him during the next 16 days. Hill was initially located on June 20, but crews were not able to safely retrieve him that day and strong currents moved him down river. Due to continuous high water levels and dangerous conditions, Hill was not relocated until July 3 and wasn’t finally retrieved until two days later.
During the span of the search, 36 agencies and organizations contributed nearly 6,000 hours to aid in the recovery process, USFS reports. Rescue crews included teams from South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia consisting of shore hiking teams, on-river search teams, in-water search teams and rescue divers.
Hill had been a Tampa sales manager for Sherwin-Williams and worked for the company for 27 years.
“We are very thankful to all the people involved in the search operation to bring Tom Hill home to his family in Tampa,” Sherwin-Williams announced in a written statement on July 5. “Your hard work, the long hours away from your families, and your concern and prayers mean so much to Tom’s family and to our Sherwin-Williams family. You have our deepest respect and gratitude. Thank you.”