On these hot summer days, the Tennessee River is inviting, but it also can be dangerous.
“Every time you go on the waterway, you’re taking a gamble with your life or your family’s life or whoever you’re with,” said Morgan County Rescue Squad Chief Danny Kelso. And the risk is greatest without a life jacket, he added.
Two people have drowned in the river in Morgan County this summer. Last summer, two drowned after falling from Lewis Bluff in the county. Last year, at least 10 people drowned in north Alabama from the start of June to mid-August.
Antonio Perez-Ramirez, a 17-year-old from Ardmore, drowned while wading in the river Monday with family. Alonda Veniszee, 17, of Madison, drowned when her kayak capsized near Bluff City Landing on June 21.
Priceville High cheerleader Carmen Johnson died of electric shock drowning after jumping into Smith Lake from her family’s boat dock in Winston County on April 16.
“The Tennessee River, it’s public waterway, so it’s not like going to a public pool where there are lifeguards on duty,” Kelso said. “If your family member is distracted or if you go by yourself and you go under, they say it’s a silent killer. ”
From 2005-14, on average, there were 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings not related to boating per year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 332 additional people drown in boat-related incidents yearly, the CDC reported.
Neither Perez-Ramirez nor Veniszee was wearing a life jacket, authorities said. This is a major issue related to river incidents, Kelso said.
“It’s just a gamble. If you wear a life jacket, you know you’re not going to have that opportunity to drown. The life jacket is going to save your life,” Kelso said. “But if you’re not wearing a life jacket, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best swimmer or not, or a good swimmer or a bad swimmer. You take that chance.
"You never know what the condition of the river is. You never know the condition of your body.”
People often think life jackets are meant for children and try to be “the bigger person,” which may be why they neglect to wear them, said Athens-Limestone County Rescue Squad Chief Shawn Creel.
“Life is worth more than death, so wear your life jacket,” Creel said.
There have been no drowning incidents in Limestone County so far this summer, Creel said. Last year, two people drowned on July 4, said Limestone County Coroner Mike West.
The Tennessee River’s undertows run at “ungodly speeds,” making it different from other swimming environments, Creel said.
“It ain’t like going to the beach," Creel said. "The current is a lot different here than at the beach.”
Even experienced swimmers can become fatigued trying to swim against the current, Kelso said.
In an open body of water, swimmers should always make forward progress by kicking their legs and feet to avoid sinking and panicking, said Dylan Livingston, lifeguard supervisor for the Aquadome and Carrie Matthews pools and the Point Mallard Water Park. If caught in a strong current, Livingston said to swim toward the closest shore rather than fight the current.
Swimmers should always know the depth of the water they’re swimming in, and if they don’t know the depth, they should wear a life jacket, Livingston said.
“That’s one of the crucial things: Wear a life jacket when in an open body of water,” Livingston said.
Perez-Ramirez was beginning to learn how to swim before he died, authorities said. Some parents may try to teach their children to swim at the river rather than pay for swimming lessons, or people may be embarrassed to attend a swimming class, resorting to the river instead, Creel said.
Creel and Kelso cited alcohol consumption on the waterways as another safety concern. Some of the past fatalities were linked to victims’ alcohol consumption, Kelso said.
People should drink plenty of fluids rather than alcohol, and always look out for others in their group, minimizing distractions, Kelso said.
“Everyone should have each others’ backs on the waterways, watching each other,” Kelso said
Kelso said people should avoid going out on the river alone. If they do, they should let others know where they’ll be. Cellphone coverage on the river can be inconsistent, especially near Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.
Aside from phone calls, boat owners can call for help in emergencies through channel 16 on a marine band radio, something Kelso recommends boaters purchase.
“We want people to enjoy themselves. We just want people to be safe,” Kelso said. “We don’t want to be that rescue squad that gets the call at our county that there’s been a drowning.”