A quick preface/disclaimer/warning: I put this post together from a few of my journal entries. They were written in near real-time while I was experiencing the death of a man who I didn’t know. He died near my family’s lake house last weekend, where I’ve been spending this summer.
Saturday, 9 June 2018
Saturday started out like any other day. I woke up around 9:30A.M., took a shower, ate breakfast, and read in my hammock on the dock. After eating a late lunch I went back down to the dock to shave my head. When I got there I noticed a massive storm sitting over the lake to the north and west. It began thundering so I went back up to the house. My brother Price and I started planning his bachelor weekend.
The sky darkened with clouds as the storm made its way south. The wind picked up and was blowing off the lake, towards our house. There were whitecaps on the lake and our windows rattled with a few gusts of wind. Waves were breaking onto the dock. Lightning was flashing on the far side of the lake. It wasn’t raining.
Price and I looked out the windows and noticed that two boats - a pontoon boat and a speedboat - were meeting a pair of kayakers out on the lake, maybe 100 yards off our dock. The pontoon boat floated between us and the kayaks, blocking our view of them. This was all far enough away that we couldn’t see what was going on, so Price got our binoculars. I could see people on the boats, and the two kayaks were vertical and mostly underwater. The boats were floating north and neither seemed to have their engine turned on. But nobody was trying to get the kayaks. Or the paddles. There were life jackets in the water. There wasn’t anybody else on the lake. Something seemed off.
Price walked down to our dock when the boats floated out of eyesight (some of our trees block the view to the north, so we couldn’t see anything after the boats floated past our neighbor’s dock.) Melinda, our neighbor to the south, walked over to meet him. After a minute or two I heard sirens. As I walked down to the dock, Price was running up to the road to meet the firetruck.
When I got to the dock Melinda looked very concerned. She told me that she thought someone went under. That took me a second to process, but there wasn’t any time to think on it because the two boats were driving towards our dock.
The speedboat arrived first, on the north side of our dock. On board was a woman, her brother, and three children. The man helped to keep the boat from slamming into the dock, as the wind and waves had not calmed down. I helped the three kids and the woman off the boat. I took down my hammock so it wasn’t in the way.
The pontoon boat arrived next with two young couples and a woman on board. Price helped tie it up to the front of the dock. The woman got off first, crying and in shock. Another woman got off and looked at me with the widest eyes, a look that I won’t soon forget.
The first woman was met by an EMT who walked her to an ambulance. She and her husband had fallen off their kayaks and into the water. Her husband drowned.
At this point the firefighters had arrived on our dock. One of them got in the speedboat to go back out to where the man drowned. An ambulance was parked in Melinda’s driveway. Police officers arrived in plain clothes because they had all been enjoying the weekend and were not on duty.
Slowly more and more emergency personnel showed up. The Sheriff. His lieutenant and deputies. More firefighters. More officers. They took our statements. Price and I put folding chairs out for the two couples who were in the pontoon boat.
The two kayakers had been out on the lake for the day. They were on the far side of the lake when the storm began rolling in. They decided to make their way to the other side of the lake - where our house is, and near where they had put the kayaks in - which is almost a mile across. Neither had a life jacket on, and neither knew how to swim well. They were panicking and paddling hard.
They flagged down two boats when they were about 3/4s of the way across. A wave knocked him out of his kayak. He grabbed her kayak, flipping her out. The people in the pontoon boat threw all of their life jackets towards him. He wouldn’t put one on. He was panicking. They got her onto the boat. When they went back to get him he was gone. This all happened in the moments before Price and I looked through binoculars to see the kayaks vertical in the water.
The emergency personnel cleared everyone off our dock. Sheriff Hancock asked Price and I if they could use our dock and our yard and we said of course. The dive team showed up and used the pontoon boat, which was a rental. Boats from the Department of Natural Resources were gridding the search area with sonar. Off-duty police officers who were on their personal fishing boats joined in the search.
I walked up to the house to calm down and drink some water. I started writing. “They’re currently still searching. It’s 7:09 PM. He went under at probably 4:00P.M.”
A light rain began.
I met Mercedes. She was in the speedboat. I helped her and the three kids off when they got to our dock.
I met Zach, he went kayaking with him three weeks ago.
I met her cousin. She was thankful we let the family sit on our porch, which was out of eyesight of the local media who had arrived.
Police tape was strung across our yard and into Melinda’s yard, on the side of our house facing the road. The Sheriff’s Command Center RV was parked in our driveway. The dive team’s pickup truck was parked in our yard by the dock.
The young couples that were on the pontoon boat were brought back to the marina where they rented it from to get their car. We’ve since only spoken to them via text message.
The dive team packed up after sunset, around 9P.M. They’ll be back at 6:30A.M. Price and I walked down to our dock, which was quiet except for the boats still gridding nearby. Two police officers were there. They told us at least one will be there all night. The rental pontoon boat was tied up to the end of our dock.
I didn’t sleep well that night. I was mostly up thinking through too many what-if scenarios.
Sunday, 10 June 2018
Price and I went for a walk, maybe around 10A.M. When we were out we heard and then saw a helicopter flying up and down the shoreline of the lake and then back to the search area off our dock. It was the Georgia State Patrol, who were called in to assist in the search. We were out for about an hour. On our way back in we could see the enormity of the recovery effort. In addition to the Sheriff’s Command Center, there were at least five other vehicles in our front yard and another five down by our dock. A fire truck was parked on the street. Across the street were at least ten vehicles. A few media vehicles were parked along the street. A tent was setup near the Command Center with food and drinks.
I met Jason, his brother. He arrived late at night and slept in his car in our driveway.
I hadn’t fully processed the situation, so instead of sitting inside I walked over to Melinda’s to talk to her and her husband, Eddy. I watched the helicopter flying directly overhead. I watched the boats on the water, the divers in the water, the people all over our dock and our yard. I met a county commissioner and some folks from the Sheriff’s office who I talked with for a while.
A cadaver dog arrived and went out on a boat. I’m not sure how that works but I believe it’s trained to bark if it smells a human. Since there were other boaters out on the lake the dog’s senses were thrown off and it was barking quite a bit. The dog was biting at the water that went past the boat, which is something our family dog used to do.
I spent four or five hours on Eddy and Melinda’s dock. The Sheriff came over to chat at one point. It was after 9P.M. when they called off the search for the day. Price and I went back up to the house, and to take our minds off things we watched a Tig Notaro standup on Netflix. I barely made it through without falling asleep. I slept like a rock that night.
Monday, 11 June 2018
On Monday morning around 8A.M. Price and I were sitting on the porch swing. The emergency personnel were just getting started for the day. The helicopter was circling the lake when the pilot spotted him floating. We watched the boats - two pontoon boats for the divers, a few DNR boats - all converge very quickly. Sheriff Hancock walked up towards us and, giving a thumbs-up, told us they’d found him. He walked Jason to a neighbor’s dock where the wife and other family were waiting.
The helicopter landed in a nearby yard. The boats slowly made their way back towards our dock. Holding on to the front of one of the pontoon boats were two divers in the water. They were holding onto an orange bag. The coroner showed up and backed his truck to the steps that lead down to our dock. The divers carried him out of the water and onto our dock, then up to the coroner.
The divers packed and cleaned our dock. The coroner drove away. The Sheriff walked up and thanked us for the use of our yard and dock.
In no more than an hour the pickup trucks and the SUVs were gone. The Sheriff’s Command Center RV was gone. The police tape was taken down. The family left. The boats drove away.
Price and I walked down to our dock for the first time since Saturday. We moved the fenders back to the side of the dock. I put my hammock back up and laid in it for a while.
The man was a body builder. He was around 6'5" 250lbs, all muscle. It took less than a minute for him to go under. There was nothing Price and I, or anyone else, could have done. The people on the two boats that met them did everything they could have.
If you’re on the water, please have a life jacket available - one that is fitted to your body size. Learn to swim. Learn to tread water. Learn to float. Understand how quickly this could happen to even the strongest person.
Later in the week Price and I were in Florida to celebrate our niece’s sixth birthday. We went out on a friend’s boat with six kids and three other adults. It was our first time on the water since this whole experience. The kids all had life jackets on, and there were enough on the boat for the adults. I found myself double checking, even though I’d been out on this boat with these people before and it probably hadn’t crossed my mind. Having grown up around boats and on the water, these things are second-nature to me. We had a lovely time.
The water will always be a part of my life. It makes me happy and calm. I feel most relaxed and peaceful when I’m swimming or sailing or on a beach. Last weekend I was reminded of the power of water. I’ll never take it for granted again.