July 8, 2008

Inexperience Cited in North Texas Lake Deaths

By Roy Appleton and Daniel Monteverde, The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 8--Lewisville Lake was its normally crowded draw last weekend. And with four of the area's seven drownings, it was the deadliest scene during one of the deadliest times at North Texas lakes in recent years.

Boating accidents caused none of the deaths, for a change. There's no indication alcohol, while being investigated in some cases, was to blame.

Authorities say the deaths, while tragic, are perhaps examples of what happens when people lack preparation, or respect for the water.

Or when good-time crowds and water mix.

Fifteen people have drowned in area lakes this year, more than twice as many as in all of 2007.

Capt. Garry Collins of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said last weekend was the deadliest holiday on the water here in his 10 years in North Texas.

"One drowning is too many," he said, "but you know you're going to have them when there's this many people around water."

At Lewisville Lake last weekend, the body of 3-year-old Natalie Escobar was found floating not far from where her father and uncle had begun looking for her. A 31-year-old Houston man, Ismael Rangel, and his 18-year-old nephew, Saul Rangel of Lewisville, drowned while swimming, as did Eugenio Reyes, 26, of Dallas.

Carrollton resident Shannon Allcock, 13, drowned in Joe Pool Lake while playing in the water with a friend. Kenneth Harper, 31, of Pilot Point, reportedly ran out of air while scuba diving at Ray Roberts Lake. And Jose Andrade, 26, of Irving drowned after jumping from a boat into Grapevine Lake, officials said.

The four Lewisville Lake deaths were the first this year at the popular Denton County attraction, long one of the state's most dangerous reservoirs. Thirteen people have died at the lake since 2004.

The Joe Pool drowning was its fifth this year, fifth since Memorial Day. And ninth since 2004. Grapevine's first drowning this year gives it five in the past 4 1/2 years, while Ray Roberts now has four drownings since 2004.

"A common thread I see is inexperienced people around the water," said Kris Bishop, an assistant chief with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "People don't take into account their physical limitations. If they don't know how to swim and if they've been drinking, they need to wear a life jacket."

And even if swimmers are strong and sober, "They just don't really have a grasp of how difficult it is to swim in open water," said Lewisville Fire Chief Terry McGrath.

At Lewisville Lake on Monday, the scene was a far cry from the weekend.

Boats sat idle in their slips and few people ventured into the water.

David Simmons, who manages Sneaky Pete's restaurant, said people packed the area the past few days. Considering the cooperative weather, and the fact that the lake level was optimal for the first time in two years, he wasn't surprised at the number of people.

Although he didn't notice any more rescues than usual for a holiday weekend, he said emergency crews did seem to have a greater sense of urgency.

"When the number of people increases on the lake that much," Mr. Simmons said, "you need to be exponentially more cautious."

And with large crowds, first responders expect accidents, Chief McGrath said.

"But to have four [drownings] in about 48 hours is unusual," he said.

Also unusual is that none of the deaths in Lewisville appear to have been alcohol-related, Chief McGrath said.

Instead, they seemed to stem from people underestimating the danger posed by water, he said.

Perhaps because of rising fuel costs, boat traffic was unusually light and boating mishaps few at reservoirs such as Ray Hubbard and Ray Roberts, game wardens reported.

But others, such as Lewisville and Joe Pool, were thick with boats. And on the shores and in the lakeside parks, "it was crowded everywhere," said Capt. Collins, of the Parks and Wildlife Department's Dallas office.

"We're doing a pretty good job slowing down the boats" and arresting drunken boaters, he said. But swimmers, particularly those emboldened by drink and wading toddlers, are another story, he and others say.

"Sometimes you just can't watch everybody," said Parks and Wildlife Capt. Neal Bieler of the department's Fort Worth office, which works Lewisville, Grapevine, Ray Roberts and other area lakes.

"Our main focus is on water [boating] safety," he said. "If you look at that, we had an outstanding weekend." A boat did sink at Lewisville Lake, but no one was injured, he said.

As for the drownings, he said, "they had a lot to do with holiday crowds and with people not paying attention to each other."

Capt. Collins agrees. "If you're drinking, stay out of the water. And watch your kids. Keep a life jacket on them. Young children drown silently."

In the drowning of Natalie Escobar near a Lewisville Lake park, Little Elm police investigated how well her father and uncle were watching the toddler before her death. Though her death was ruled accidental, police will forward their information to the Denton County grand jury, which will consider whether criminal charges are warranted, said police Lt. Greg Wilkerson.

"She apparently became missing," he said, "and as her father and uncle began looking for her, a swimmer found her 12 to 15 feet away from the shore."


SOURCE: Texas Parks and Wildlife


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