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It just takes one mistake


September 10, 2008
I know a little about drowning. I know the dark feeling that comes over you when you're told that someone you care deeply about has drowned. I know what it's like to keep turning the incident over and over in your mind, questioning why something went terribly wrong, or wondering why the person didn't … or if only someone had gotten there sooner, they might have. … And you wonder if it was painful or if the person was scared.

I know what it's like to watch a mother grieve for a child who has drowned. I know what its like to see an empty place at the table. And I've been through all of that — twice.

The year that I turned 16, I got a summer job as a deckhand on a towboat. In early August, we were locking down at Lock 1 on the Kentucky River when I saw a deputy sheriff pull up, get out of his car, and talk to the lockmaster for a moment. They both looked in my direction, and the deputy started walking toward me. I remember it so clearly — it was as if he was walking in slow motion. I knew I hadn't broken any laws, so a feeling came over me that something was wrong. I had no idea what it could be, but I felt it, long before he reached me. I still remember every word.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you this," he began, "but we've just gotten word that your 8-year-old brother has drowned."

I walked along the side of the barge until I reached the boat, doing my best to act like a man. I went to my room, sat down on my bunk, and let myself be 16 years old. But the tears didn't help, nothing could help, except seeing my little brother alive again.

And I remember the impact that it had on my family — my mother refusing to accept it, crying for days and days — my grandmother sitting in the porch swing, fanning herself with a little paper fan that had a picture of Jesus on it, staring out across the yard, not saying anything for hours. I remember being at the funeral home and an endless line of people coming up to me with heartfelt condolences and hugs — but little of it registered, I was just numb for weeks — and there's times when solitude and reflection are the only things that are soothing.

Two summers later when I was 18, I was on a different riverboat, southbound on the Ohio River, and got a radio call that my 16-year-old brother had drowned. He had been swimming in a lake with friends and just went under — and never came back up. On some level, I didn't even want to go home. I knew what it would be like. I knew how difficult it was to watch those you love hurt so badly. And I knew that time was the only thing that would reduce the hurt. And I was right. Even if you've been through it before, the hurt is still as sharp as a knife, cutting to the very depths of your soul and leaving you feeling wrung-out and empty.

Every death is a loss, and there's not a good way to die. Automobile wrecks are horrible. Deaths related to health difficulties can sometimes be sudden and unexpected, not to mention painful and hurtful. But there's something about drowning that sets it apart from the others, something dark and mysterious, and scary — something that never leaves you alone, something that seldom allows closure. And a lot of people never consider the impact it has on those who are on the front lines, those whose job it is to find the loved ones whose lives the water has claimed and return them to their families.

Most of the time, at least in this area, Department of Natural Resources conservation officers are the ones who step up to the plate and take on the responsibility of water rescue and recovery. Officers Terry Allen and Dennis Talley know, all to well, the mechanics of recovering a drowning victim. And they also know the emotional trauma that accompanies each one.

"Every drowning scene is a double story," Talley said. "We have the job at hand — to recover the victim. And we also have the family of the victim to consider. Many times, the family will hold a vigil at the scene, and will stay until the person is recovered. There have been many, many times that families have shown us a picture of the victim. I'm not really sure why that want us to see it, but we always take the time to look at it. Maybe they want us to see the victim as a person, to put a face to the tragedy."

"There was a guy who drowned during real cold weather one time," Allen said. "We weren't able to find him for 43 days. I talked to his wife on the phone every day. Then, when we finally got him out, I had to call her. It was tough. We deal with death our whole career, and we all handle it in different ways. Some incidents stick with you more than others."

"The kids are the hardest," Talley added. "That really bothers us. We usually experience all kinds of emotions. We even get upset at times because we know that, with just a little effort, the drowning could have been prevented. I have never taken a PFD (personal floatation device) off a drowning victim. I've also never unbuckled a seat belt from a deceased crash victim. Seat belts and PFDs save lives."

"And a lot of times, recovering a drowning victim puts us in danger ourselves," said Allen, who is also a diver. "It's so easy to get hung up on something underwater when we're diving. And it gets so frustrating when we can't find a victim. The family is usually watching our every move. And sometimes, we second guess ourselves — and ask ourselves, 'What could we have done differently?' But we're there for the families, and we never forget that. And there's times when we have to put some distance between us and the families, just to do our job. But we usually have an officer on the scene, like Officer Mac Spainhour, who does a wonderful and necessary job of keeping the families informed, and it lets us focus on the job at hand."

"And people who can't swim rarely drown," Talley said. "They tend to use more caution around water. A lot of times, it's the good swimmers who drown. They are often more careless, or put themselves in more dangerous situations."

The officers went on to describe training they have had on what happens when a person drowns — the chain of events that cause a person to drown once they are underwater. That same chain of events is included on page 141 through 143 of the book, "The Perfect Storm." (There was also a movie based on the book.) I read the book years after my brothers drowned, and it hit me like a rock when I read the description. At first, I thought it was more than I needed to know. But later, I realized that I, and anyone else who spends time on the water, should be aware of this information, if for no other reason than to make us more careful. I have always heard, and liked to believe, that drowning was like going to sleep. I now know differently.

Recently, Crawford, Perry and Harrison counties each lost a special person to drowning. Bart Zimmerman, of Corydon, was loved by the entire community. A caring, talented and respected person, Zimmerman drowned trying to help others. Derrick Adams, from Taswell, was a great young man. He spent time helping 4-H kids, or anyone else who needed it. During his funeral, at Denbo Funeral Home in English, there were so many paying their respects that the parking lot was full and cars were parked up and down S.R. 64, one of the largest funerals ever at the funeral home. Ricky Wiseman, of Troy, was known and respected by many throughout Perry County. And just the other day, a guy I knew, Bill Browning, the lockmaster at McAlpine Locks, drowned when he fell from a houseboat on the Ohio River. He wasn't wearing a lifejacket.

During my 30-year career as a towboat captain, I was exposed to a lot of drownings. But it's never something you just accept. One time I was in the pilot house, locking up at one of the Ohio River Locks and as we were raised up, I could see over the concrete walls of the lock. There was a small fishing boat just below the dam, and as I watched, the boat was sucked into the dam by the turbulent water, and capsized. The man in the boat came up to the surface and started swimming toward the bank. There were two or three lifejackets floating in the water near him, but he ignored them and kept swimming. He was so close to the dam that the suction kept pulling him under, and a few seconds later, he would resurface and try to swim again. After going under two or three times, exhaustion overcame him and he disappeared for the last time. My first reaction was anger. Why didn't he grab a life preserver? Why wasn't he wearing one? Why didn't he stay with his boat, which was still floating upside down, but could have saved him? Why did he put me through this, making me witness everything when I couldn't prevent what was happening or offer help? But after a few minutes, I just felt sick — and drained — and that old familiar dark feeling came over me.

All of my adult life, when I hear about a drowning, I get that same dark feeling. Even if I don't know the person, it's there. I wish there was a way I could put it into words — a way to explain it. But I believe that only those who have had their hearts broken by a drowning, can know that feeling.

There are so many ways to prevent drownings. But we never know when they are prevented, only when they aren't. There are programs and precautions that can certainly increase the chances that a person will return home from fishing, swimming or boating. Always wear a life jacket while aboard an open boat. Never swim alone, or in dangerous waters. Never take chances — on the water, you often get only one.

The Department of Natural Resources has trainings for both boat handling and water safety every year, but those are often poorly attended. That needs to change. Everyone who buys or has plans to operate a boat should take advantage of the vast amount of knowledge the DNR officers have and are willing to share. Just one little tidbit of information could save a life.

My brothers can never be replaced. Bart Zimmerman, Derrick Adams and Ricky Wiseman can never be replaced. And neither can you.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Clarion News would like to extend our condolences and prayers to the families of the victims mentioned in this column. It is our hope that by sharing this information with others, we may be able to prevent other families from experiencing similar tragedies.

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