by Nate Herring
Tulsa District Public Affairs
The off-road vehicle area at Eufaula Lake is a popular place for visitors during summer holidays, but for two cousins, their visit almost took a tragic turn. After nearly drowning, the two had to be rescued.
Oklahoma Marine Enforcement Section Trooper Danny Choate and Eufaula Lake park rangers Eric Fassio and Chris Gilliland participated in the rescue and were recently recognized for their efforts with lifesaving awards presented by Tulsa District commander Col. Michael Teague.
On July 5, 2012, two cousins were riding in the off -road vehicle area below the Eufaula Dam when they tried to cross the river. The first was successful but when the second tried to cross, his ATV was swept out from under him.
"The initial report indicated that the individual has wrecked his ATV, was thrown into the water and had drowned," said Dean Roberts, Eufaula Lake manager. It wasn't until park rangers responded that it was discovered that two people were involved and they hadn't drowned but rather were hanging onto a log in the river.
After realizing his cousin couldn't swim, the second jumped in the water to try to save him, but the swift currents caused by hydropower generation caused him to become stranded as well. Generation was stopped and first responders arrived at the scene but it was determined that a rescue was too unsafe. Trooper Choate was contacted by the lake office, but was several miles away and would need to hook up an airboat before he could assist.
"By this time one of the victims had managed to climb on top of the log and was reasonably safe, but the other was in much more trouble," Roberts said. "He was struggling to hang onto the log and his body was being pulled under by the current."
As soon as Choate arrived, Gilliland and Fassio helped him launch the boat and the rescue began. By the time they reached the two, the man clinging to the log was exhausted and could barely hang on.
"If we'd had a problem getting there, the guy clinging to the log wouldn't have made it," Choate said. Luckily, Gilliland and Fassio were able to pull both men safely into the vessel.
Without the quick response from Trooper Choate and assistance from Rangers Gilliland and Fassio, the results of this accident may have been much more tragic," Roberts said.
In this case tragedy was averted; however, that does not always happen. Two people drowned in 2012 at Eufaula Lake and nine the year before and there were 15 drownings in total at Corps lakes in the Tulsa District, which includes Oklahoma, parts of Southern Kansas, and parts of Northern Texas.
"Statewide, 85 percent of drownings wouldn't happen if people had on life jackets," Choate said. "They are avoidable deaths."
Of the 15 that died last year, none were wearing a life jacket, but more than 50 percent had one available to them. Life jackets should always be worn when in or around water and the Corps of Engineers makes it even easier to wear one. Many Tulsa District lakes have life jacket loaner boards in the recreation areas, including all of Eufaula's class A parks. These loaner boards have life jackets hanging on them that visitors are free to use and then return when they are finished.
"We talk about water safety all the time, but sometimes people are not always as safe as we would like and it can lead to tragedy." said Teague. "Wearing a life jacket can prevent that."
Release no. 13-008