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Officials urge caution as deaths mount on Missouri waterways

Officials urge caution as deaths mount on Missouri waterways

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Man drowns in Meramec River at Sherman Beach Park

St. Louis County park rangers block the entrance to Sherman Beach Park in St. Louis County as divers and boats using sonar search for the body of a man in the Meramec River on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

EUREKA — Crowds are flocking to Missouri’s waterways as summer heats up and people are no longer confined to their homes by the pandemic.

And that trend is too often turning deadly this year.

At least 10 people have drowned so far this month in Missouri and an additional six have died in boating accidents. That’s more than what was recorded in all of June 2019, the most recent year with comparable monthly data, according to the Missouri Highway Patrol. None of the 16 who have died this month was wearing a life jacket.

“We’ve had an alarming number of emergencies already this year,” said Greg Brown, chief of the Eureka Fire Protection District, who asked people taking to the water to use more caution.

So far this year, at least 39 people have either drowned or died in boating accidents across the state. At least seven were children.

The mounting deaths prompted Brown and other public safety officials to gather Monday at a Eureka fire station to give a primary message: Be smart in the water.

The news conference came after three people drowned in the St. Louis area in the last week: one in the Meramec River, one in the Big River and another at Creve Coeur Lake.

Eleven of the deaths this year have happened in the highway patrol’s Troop C, which includes Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and St. Louis counties. There were 12 water deaths in Troop C in all of 2020, said patrol Cpl. Juston Wheetley. There were 14 deaths in 2019 and 11 deaths in 2018, he said.

“With our guys on the waterways, we’re trying to promote safety,” Wheetley said. “What we’ve seen is a lot of risky behavior — alcohol is a major factor in this — as well as not wearing life jackets and people overestimating their swimming abilities.”

Officials with the St. Louis County Park Rangers, St. Louis County police, highway patrol and 20 fire and ambulance departments attended Monday’s gathering, packing the garage of the Eureka fire station.

Wheetley and other speakers emphasized the dangers of swimming in rivers.

“Rivers are relentless. They do not discriminate, they don’t care who you are,” he said.

More and more Missourians are flocking to the water as the temperature rises. St. Louis County’s parks, once quiet, are now frequent destinations for people looking to cool off, Park Ranger Sgt. Cheryl Fechter said.

“Typically we respond to very crowded parks, especially after COVID a lot of people found our out-of-the-way parks which weren’t terribly popular,” Fechter said. “With the closing of the pools last year, people started to come out to the rivers more.”

Sherman Beach Park, along the Meramec River east of Eureka, where a man drowned last week, is now 10 times more popular than it was before the pandemic, she said.

“Usually the parking lot, which only holds 11 cars, didn’t fill throughout the summer. Now we have been turning away hundreds of cars from this park in order to avoid overcrowding,” she said.

An eagerness to leave behind pandemic lockdowns and restrictions has led to an abundance of people on the water, Kirkwood fire Chief Jim Silvernail said.

“People are getting out. They’re taking chances now that they’re not locked inside with COVID and everything. There’s not a whole lot else to do in this area,” Silvernail said. “This is a recreation that really has no boundaries. We try to create boundaries but how do you lock people away from a river?”

{div class=”lee-article-text”}Swimming is prohibited at St. Louis County park streams, ponds and lakes, and it can be dangerous, Fechter said.

{/div} {div class=”lee-article-text”}“We like to tell people the rivers are not like a pool. It’s not clear, you can’t see the bottom and the current is always changing,” she said. “A river might be a couple inches deep and then the next foot it goes down to 10 to 15 feet deep.”

{/div} {div class=”lee-article-text”}Fechter said there is no shoreline of any river in St. Louis County where she considers it safe to swim. For those who choose to swim in rivers despite the risk, interim Fenton fire Chief Ramona Kaminski recommends life jackets, even for adults who consider themselves strong swimmers.

“Just like CPR, car seats and seat belts, life jackets save lives,” she said. “When you’re getting ready for an activity on the water, life jackets should be just as important as sunscreen.”

The speakers emphasized the necessity of life jackets and awareness because by the time a rescue team arrives on a scene, it’s often too late. None of the departments at the news conference has successfully rescued anyone from drowning this summer.

“We would love it if we had more rescues, but timing being what it is, it’s less likely to happen,” said Mike Krause, chief of the Metro West Fire Protection District. “There are some cases in cold water where you can rescue someone and they’d be a viable patient maybe, but in most cases, especially this time of year, the responses we have are often recoveries.”

He said rivers in the region can look peaceful, but they’re deceiving.

“A drowning person is not like in Hollywood, splashing and yelling for help,” Krause said. “The reality is that drowning in its last moments is a very silent event because your body needs to breathe, so you have no time to yell.”

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Metro News Intern

Nick Robertson is a junior at Syracuse University studying journalism and political science. He is a summer intern with the metro news department.

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