TORRINGTON – A young South Torrington boy is alive and recuperating well following a near-drowning incident Saturday, Sept. 22, below the diversion dam in the North Platte River off Pioneer Park.
And, while two local people – Amber Back and 10-year-old Caleb David-Park – are being lauded as heroes for their efforts to rescue the boy, some Torrington city officials say there was a healthy dose of luck involved as well.
The community was “absolutely lucky,” the outcome wasn’t far worse, said Dennis Estes, former Torrington Volunteer Fire Department chief. Estes was one of those responsible for the formation of a swift-water rescue team in the county, based out of TVFD, at least in part to be close by an area of the river known as a site of repeated tragedies.
“Especially when you have a rescuer going in to get him,” he said. “In my experience, that’s usually when you lose two people.”
“In my 30 years with the fire department, probably seven or more people that I can remember have drowned here,” Estes said Wednesday, standing on the banks of the river at almost the exact spot Back and David-Park pulled the 12-year-old out of the river Saturday.
Lt. Doug Weeks, a 17-year-veteran of the Torrington Police Department, can’t remember how many drownings he’s seen on this particular stretch of the river. And, while it’s not illegal to swim in the river, Weeks recommends people think twice before jumping in the water.
“Is it their wisest choice? No,” Weeks said. “Our recommendation is not to swim anywhere near that diversion dam. We’ve had people who can swim really well die in that river.”
Part of the problem, and what makes that particular stretch of the river near the southwest corner of Pioneer Park so dangerous, is the topography underwater downstream of the dam, Estes said. Coupled with the design of the dam, which includes bellows which can be filled with air to divert a portion of the river’s flow into an irrigation pipe on the north bank, energy dispersion structures built into the bottom of the river can become death traps, he said.
“There’s eddies, undercurrents, in there – when water is flowing over the dam it will get a suction in there and people get stuck in there,” Estes said. “What happens is people get out there and get into (the undercurrents), they’ll hit those concrete pillars or they’ll get caught up in debris underwater.
“We actually had a firefighter get stuck in there in a boat, trying to get someone out,” he said. “But he eventually popped out and we got him out of there.”
Goshen County Sheriff Jeremy Wardell, a member of the swift-water rescue team, also has bad memories of drownings at the river.
“There was one a long time ago, the fire department spent several days down there, looking for somebody,” Wardell remembered. “It took forever. We ended up finding him further downstream.
“The thing about that river – there are so many unknowns,” he said. “Snags, things around these diversion dams. It’s a very dangerous place.”
While the eddies and under-currents produced by the water as it passes over the dam are dangerous, of equal concern is the amount of debris in the water, Estes said. Several years ago, when he was fire chief, he helped organize a cleanup day in the river. City crews, local businesses and private individuals flocked to the river, where they used heavy equipment and anything else at hand to remove debris, including massive blocks of concrete left over when a previous dam in about the same location failed, he said.
“The dynamics of that dam cause a lot of turbulence,” Wardell said. “It just rolls (victims) over and over. Unless you know how to get out of it, you stay there until you drown.”
Estes guesses every five to seven years, something of a similar nature to the near-drowning last week – or worse – happens. It seems, as high school classes graduate and groups of younger students move up, memories of past tragedies fade and, sadly, history repeats itself.
For several years, Estes has been trying to gather support and funding for some type of informational sign – or signs – to be placed near the head of the trail from the parking area to the diversion dam. He’d like to see big, colorful graphics, describing exactly the lay of the underwater landscape below the diversion and what it can do.
Right now, there’s only one small sign warning of the dangers, which Estes believes was placed by one of the property owners whose land abuts the river. The sign warns people not to try swimming too close to the dam because “people have drown here.”
Adding to the concerns is the status of the river as public land. It’s completely legal to swim in the North Platte River off Pioneer Park, Estes, Weeks and Wardell said. And nothing is more attractive to kids on a hot summer day than a dip in the river.
Estes even said, if he didn’t know the history of this section of the river, he’d be tempted to swim when temperatures near the triple-digit mark in the spring and summer.
“When the water is flowing high, it really is inviting on a hot summer day,” Estes said. “Especially after school lets out in the spring – it’s when we seem to have our biggest issues.”
Education would go a long way toward helping solve the problem, he said. But money to pay for signs is in short supply and Estes frankly doesn’t know whose direct responsibility it should be.
“Whoever is in charge of this, we as a public aren’t doing a very good job of showing people, year after year, what happens here,” Estes said. “It’s crazy for us to keep losing people here.”