Survivors of Rockingham County tubing accident suing dam owned by Duke Energy

Piedmont Triad News

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The survivors of a family of nine who went over a dam while tubing on the Dan River in June are suing owner Duke Energy.

Five members of the Villano family died and four others survived after they were dragged over the dam while floating down the river on inflatable tubes.

The lawsuit asks for a total of $200,000 in damages, claiming that Duke Energy should have warned people the dam was dangerous and provided ways to help prevent people from being swept over the dam.

The suit asks for compensatory damages for both surviving members of the Villano family, as well as for the estates of those who died. 

According to Hydro Review, there are 3,000 low head dams in North Carolina like the one located the Dan River owned by Duke Energy. 

When the accident happened on June 16, Irene Villano was among those who survived. The 18-year-old recalled the terrifying experience of being caught in the roiling waters just below the dam. 

“If I wasn’t holding on, it was like we were rotating around, and over and over again,” she said. “The only way it would stop was if you had something to hold on to.”

She and three other surviving family members spent the night in the river before rescue crews pulled them out the next day.

Those crews spent several more days looking for the bodies of the rest of the family.

Following the accident, Duke Energy added warning signs about the submerged dam. 

“A sign is not going to do it,” said family attorney Kenneth Allen. “The only effective sign in this situation is one floating on a buoy in the middle of a river that is attached to a steel cable that protects people and keeps them from going over the dam.” 

The lawsuit said the dam represented a hidden danger to swimmers, kayakers, canoeists, and tubers. 

Among the claims made in the lawsuit, it said Duke Energy:

  • Failed to take adequate measures to warn of the danger posed by the dam.
  • Failed to use safety devices to prevent boaters from going over the dam and getting caught in its recirculating currents.
  • Did not dismantle the dam after it was no longer used.

“It’s been difficult, heartbreaking, kind of miserable to be here,” Villano said.

Wiping tears from her eyes at a news conference to announce the lawsuit, Irene Villano said, “It’s just you’re with the people all the time, always around them, and then they’re just not here anymore”

In an emailed statement to CBS 17, Duke Energy spokesman Dave Scanzoni said, “Our hearts go out to those involved in the tragic accident on the Dan River.”

However, Scanzoni deferred commenting on the specifics of the lawsuit saying, “We will respond to the lawsuit in detail, in a future legal filing.”

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