Each year, millions of people enjoy spending time at Kansas lakes and rivers and return home with happy memories to share with others. Sadly, outdoor fun turned fatal for five people who drowned in Kansas waters the first week of July – including four who perished over the extended July 4th holiday. This brings the number of people who have been fatally injured or drowned in Kansas lakes, ponds and rivers so far this year to 12. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly half of all drownings in the U.S. occur in natural water settings.
Nine of the 12 incidents occurred when the victims were swimming or wading and were not boating related. Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) investigates boating accidents. Only one of the victims was wearing a life jacket. The following list of incidents was compiled from KDWPT and news reports:
July 6 – George Willenberg, 38, Hoisington, died at Wilson Reservoir while trying to swim across a cove in the Rock Town area after the boat he was on had mechanical problems.
July 5 – Oscar N. Rodriguez-Vargas, 29, Wichita, died at El Dorado Reservoir when he stepped from shallow water into deeper water while wading to a boat drifting offshore.
July 5 – Tommy Watt, 15, Clay Center, drowned while swimming in a private farm pond near Longford in Clay County.
July 4 – Khai Pu, 27, Thailand, drowned while swimming at the Hillsdale State Park swim beach in Miami County.
July 1 – Blake Chavez, 24, Oswego, died when he fell into the Neosho River below the Oswego dam.
June 29 – Marcus Marqaiz Hutton, 19, Wichita, died at Cheney Reservoir while swimming with friends after he helped another struggling swimmer to safety.
June 28 – James Struthers, 47, Junction City, died after falling from a boat near the city of Milford boat ramp.
June 11 – Derek Wheeler, 18, Salina, died at Kanopolis Reservoir after his kayak capsized.
June 10 – Nicolas Frazer, 14, Centralia, was fatally injured at Centralia City Lake when he was thrown from an inner tube being pulled behind a boat. He was wearing a life jacket, and was later pronounced dead at Nemaha Valley Community Hospital in Seneca.
May 27 – Travis Webb, 14, Haysville, drowned at Wellington City Lake while wading with friends.
May 26 – Vincent Rice, 37, Melvern, drowned at Melvern Reservoir while scuba diving in the area of the Coeur D’Alene swimming beach.
May 18 – Robert Duff, Jr., 2, City, fell from a boat and was airlifted to a Topeka hospital where he passed away.
According to Maj. Dan Hesket, KDWPT Boating Law Administrator, drowning incidents may be prevented with a few simple precautions:
Wear a life jacket at all times. Kansas law requires that all boats have one Type I, Type II, Type III, or Type V PFD of proper size, in serviceable condition, not in an enclosed compartment and readily accessible for each person on board. Anyone 12 years old and younger must wear a life jacket at all times when on board a boat. KDWPT strongly recommends that everyone wear a life jacket at all times when boating or swimming. It’s a great way for adults to set a good example.
Swim and wade with caution. Lakes and rivers aren’t swimming pools and shouldn’t be treated as such. Kansas lakes have wind, waves, underwater obstacles, sudden drop-offs and soft bottoms. Rivers can have deceptively strong currents. Many Kansas lakes also have currents because they were built by flooding a river channel. Also, most Kansas lakes are murky, making it nearly impossible to quickly locate someone who has slipped beneath the surface.
Don’t dive into a lake since you can’t see the water depth or underwater debris.
Know your limitations. Many people over estimate their ability to swim in open water. No one is drown-proof, no matter how much training or experience they have. Swimming in a lake is strenuous, and even strong swimmers can quickly become fatigued, disoriented, or overwhelmed by wind, waves and currents. Be particularly cautious if you have underlying medical issues or take medications that could impair your abilities.
Don’t swim at night and don’t swim alone. No one can see you if you get into trouble.
Avoid horseplay and risk-taking. Practical jokes or childish challenges like breath-holding contests have no place while swimming or boating. Most drownings in the U.S. happen to males – possibly because they may be more inclined to take risks than females.
Avoid alcohol and other drugs. In addition to impairing a person’s judgment about lake conditions, alcohol increases the likelihood a swimmer will tire or become disoriented, hyperventilate, or gasp involuntarily.
Designate a lookout – Unlike the local swimming pool, there are no lifeguards on duty on Kansas waters, so it’s a good idea to designate someone who can sound the alarm and respond appropriately if a swimmer gets into trouble. Rescuers should not attempt to approach a person struggling to stay afloat unless they are trained to do so. Even strong swimmers can drown trying to help others. Instead, stay on the boat or dock and extend a pole, oar, stick, rope, or clothing to reach the victim or throw something floatable to them.
Learn cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). You could save someone’s life in the time it takes for emergency responders to arrive at a rural location.