By Vic Ryckaert
When conditions are right, low-head dams make picturesque, inviting structures that seem a perfect place for casting a fishing line or taking a dip. But when the water is high or moving fast, these dams are deadly.
“They are very, very deceiving structures,” said Kenneth Smith, assistant director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ division of water.
“If there has been a large rainfall… they change from that scenic, peaceful place into something with a very violent reverse current that can trap somebody below the dam.”
It was at one of these dams that an Indianapolis woman lost her life earlier this month while trying to rescue a dog.
Witnesses saw Jackie Watts chasing a lost dog near a dam on the Flatrock River in Columbus.
Watts was trying to rescue a 10-year-old partially blind poodle named Ringo. The dog had been separated from his family days before.
Ringo went into the water. So did Watts. Neither surfaced.
Her body was discovered March 4 not far from the dam. The Bartholomew County coroner ruled Watts had drowned.
Ringo’s body was found farther down the stream.
Columbus police couldn’t say for sure, but evidence suggests that the churning waters of the dam played a significant role in Watts’ death.
These dams have been described as “drowning machines” by safety experts. They create a circular current that keeps victims trapped underneath until the turbulent waters finally spit them out.
Watts isn’t the only death attributed to the more than 150 low-head dams in the state.
Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security said there have been at least 24 deaths since 1997.
There have been close calls, including some in Indianapolis. In 2001, rescuers used a helicopter to pull four adults and a 9-month-old boy from a boat that became stuck after partially going over a low-head dam on the White River.
According to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security: » Indiana ranks 10th in the nation for people who have died in low-head dams.
» Of all drownings in Indiana, more than 10 percent are dam-related.
» The average age of drowning victims in Indiana is 25.
In 2014, five high school-age friends went swimming near a lowhead dam in the Big Blue River in Edinburgh. Two drowned; one survived but suffered permanent brain damage. Sarah McLevish, Morgantown, was swept over a low-head dam and was caught underneath the water. Jason Moran, 17, and Michael Chadbourne, 16, both Franklin High School students, died trying to rescue her.
Trent Crabb, and Mark Nally, both of Franklin, came close to drowning.
“I remember I was trying to catch my breath, but I was getting water in my mouth,” Crabb testified during an April 2016 deposition, part of a lawsuit filed by families of the victims against Edinburgh.
“I was like, ‘This is what drowning is.’ Like, I felt it.” Crabb survived by managing to stand and lift his head above the current.
John Townsend II, a lawyer for the McLevish, Chadborne and Moran families, said Edinburgh and other communities must do more to raise awareness about the dangers of these dams.
“What ends up happening is people swim around these dams (when the water is calm). They jump off of them. They go over them in kayaks and canoes,” Townsend said. “That tends to give people a false sense of security.”
The Edinburgh dam has been a local fishing and swimming spot for decades. The five high school friends had been swimming there just days before the waters turned deadly, Townsend said.
Sarah McLevish was under water too long and suffered severe brain damage cause by the lack of oxygen. Today, Townsend said, McLevish can’t talk, get dressed or take care of herself.
The families want state and local officials to warn people about the dangers. There are still no warning signs at the Edinburgh dam, Townsend said.
The families are seeking $750,000 for each victim, the maximum allowed under Indiana law. The cases are pending in Marion Superior Court.
Edinburgh Town Manager Wade Watson declined to comment citing the pending lawsuit. Dustin
Huddleston, Edinburgh’s lawyer, could not be reached for comment.
Warning signs are a good start, Townsend said, but communities can do more. Many communities have installed warning buoys in the waterways. Others have filled the low areas with stone to raise the ground level. “They are beautiful. They draw you in,” said Smith, the DNR’s dam expert. “You can understand why people are drawn to them to recreate there.
“They become a Jecklland- Hyde personality. During times of high flow, they become quite deadly.”
“What ends up happening is people swim around these dams (when the water is calm). They jump off of them. They go over them in kayaks and canoes. That tends to give people a false sense of security.”
When the water is calm, low-head dams like this one on the Big Blue River in Edinburgh are popular fishing and swimming spots. But when the water’s high, these dams turn deadly. In 2014, two teens drowned and a third suffered permanent brain damage at this spot.