On September 15, 2012, I stood on the banks of Henry Hagg Lake as EMTs treated eight children who had nearly drowned just moments earlier. One child had slipped under water, and the other seven had succumbed while trying to rescue their sibling.
In my role as volunteer Public Information Officer, part of my job involved observing the scene, helping to control the crowd, and gathering statements from witnesses and from the Good Samaritans who had rescued the children.
I observed the calm, even smiling demeanor of many of the EMTs, although I knew that was a mask; many had children of their own the same age as these near drowning victims, and almost any first responder will tell you that incidents involving children are the toughest calls of their careers. I observed the shock and horror on the faces of the parents, aunts and uncles of the children. I observed the tears and concern of many of the gathering crowd of onlookers.
As I talked to those involved, I heard stories of heroism and team work. Members of one brave family risked their own lives to race into the water, pull the children out of the murky water and in some cases from the muck at the bottom of the lake, which was starting to trap a couple of the children. Other members of the family stayed on shore to begin CPR or first aid as the children were rescued. Other onlookers frantically searched for life preservers or for a spot with cell phone reception to call for help.
But soon I was hearing other types of stories, including disgust at the behavior of some of the onlookers. Some people were upset at beachgoers who had done nothing to help, but that didn’t bother me, because in this situation if a person doesn’t have excellent swimming skills, first aid training or a cell phone with reception at the lake, staying out of the way is a wise course of action. What did bother me was that as I spoke to these concerned citizens I could see two groups of young adults nearby talking laughing and even mimicking the gestures and calls for help from the children, who were still lying in the sand with what could have been life-threatening injuries. Fortunately, when all was said and done, none of the injuries was serious, thanks to the incredible family of heroes.
I was disturbed as other onlookers expressed disdain for a family that would allow eight children to fall into the same trap; after all, people asked, couldn’t they see the danger? The answer, I quickly learned, was no, they could not see the danger, and I don’t consider them foolish at all for trying to save their beloved sibling.
I came to this conclusion after talking to the heroes who saved the children. They told me that just a few feet from the edge of the water, there was a sudden and steep drop-off. For most of the picnic area, children were able to wade 50 feet or more out into waist-deep water. But hidden beneath the calm shallow waters at the edge of a little bay lay this sheer cliff, cut by the raging winter currents of Sain Creek. In the hot dry summer, the creek becomes nearly invisible. As these heroes came down from the adrenaline high of their daring rescue, they began to ask me why there were no signs warning of this incredibly dangerous situation.
I should have had an answer for them. For more than three years, I had maintained free life-jacket lending kiosks at the lake for the Safe Kids Coalition, for which I also volunteered. I spent a long, hot summer day in 2009 helping install the kiosks with Kyle Giesbers, who had organized the effort for his Eagle Scout project. I checked on the life jackets at least weekly, looking for damage or theft. A few times a year I would circle the lake looking for life jackets that people had left at other picnic areas or in some cases simply flung from their cars as they left the park. The frequent fishermen got to know me from my early morning visits and collected the life jackets they found on their never-ending search for the perfect fishing hole. In the winter, I stored the life jackets in my barn, counting them and culling any damaged ones.
Sometimes I would go back to the lake in the afternoon to see who was, and wasn’t using the life jackets. When I saw a family with children wading in the water without a life jacket I would politely tell them that they could borrow one free. “It’s so shallow,” they would say, “and I’m right here. We don’t need one.” Parents were surprised when I told them that there were sudden drop-offs in the area, and in nearly every case they went to the kiosk and grabbed a life-jacket.
Still, as I stood there on the hot afternoon of September 15, 2012, my knees shaking from the trauma of this near tragedy, I realized that I didn’t know just how dangerous this drop-off really was. For days afterwards, I would drive to the spot as the water receded. By early October, the scene was laid bare. The ledge, visible in the video above, is clear.
I worked with a member of the family who rescued the eight children to organize a project to erect warning signs, but the Washington County Parks department didn’t want to participate. That’s fine, because I know that working with a couple of well-meaning volunteers can be more trouble than it’s worth. My response to that argument is simple: Then put up the signs yourself, Washington County.
I have left the fire service. I never had the guts or strength to fight fires or to rescue drowning kids, but I always figured that maybe I had the voice to save lives in other ways. I always thought that I could help prevent tragedies from occurring in the first place. In the case of Hagg Lake, I thought that I could help parents understand the need for these free life jackets.
I pictured some innocent toddler going home safely with her family because her parents had put a life jacket on her or kept her out of the water altogether. I pictured firefighters and EMTs enjoying a warm summer afternoon at home instead of crying by the banks of Hagg Lake after recovering the body of a child from the Sain Creek channel.
Instead, on August 25, 2014, I watched news reports and pictured the lifeless body of a 3-year-old boy, found floating the lake. I pictured my friends performing fruitless CPR on this precious baby, while others cared for his beloved little dog and others still searched for anyone attached to him, not yet knowing that his brother, mother and grandmother also had drowned after having stepped off the deadly ledge formed by Sain Creek in the winter when rains turn it into a torrent, yet hidden by the shallow, serene, inviting lake on blazing hot August afternoons.