Staying safe on the water

J.J. Edwards, the stepmother of 10-year-old drowning victim Elijah Spratt, receives a donated lifejacket from Ren and Cameron Leach at Twin Rivers Park on July 6. - Kirk Boxleitner
J.J. Edwards, the stepmother of 10-year-old drowning victim Elijah Spratt, receives a donated lifejacket from Ren and Cameron Leach at Twin Rivers Park on July 6.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — Especially in the wake of the June 30 drowning of 10-year-old Elijah Spratt on the Stillaguamish River, Lt. Rodney Rochon of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Marine Services Unit wants to educate the public well enough that his rescue services will never be needed.

“Speaking on behalf of all of us in the Marine Services Unit, our goal is to put ourselves out of business,” Rochon said. “Parents need to pay attention to children in the water, whether it’s a tub, a pool, a lake or a river. At Haller Park and Twin Rivers Park in Arlington, the Stillaguamish River can look so calm, but it’s always moving, and there are all sorts of hidden hazards under the water’s surface, from rocks to logjams.”

Rochon lamented that one water safety program has proven a bit too popular, since the loaner lifejacket cabinet at Gissberg Twin Lakes County Park that was stocked with 20 lifejackets just a few weeks ago now boasts only three.

“If you have one of those lifejackets, just bring them back,” Rochon said. “We won’t file charges against anyone, but people who take those lifejackets home jeopardize the program. When families come to the park and there aren’t any lifejackets there, that ruins some other child’s day.”

Just as the current in Ebey Slough can change direction with the tides, so too did Rochon point out that places like Twin Rivers Park are hazardous for swimmers, because the two forks of the Stillaguamish River converge there.

“You’re also dealing with the temperature differential of water that was snow 8-10 hours before,” Rochon said. “The air may be 70-90 degrees, but the water is nowhere near that warm. You have a 50/50 chance of being able to swim 50 yards in 50-degree water. If there’s any kind of current, your chances are even worse.”

Mark Murphy, senior program manager for the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, elaborated that colder waters and swifter currents tend to go together, since melting snow can cause both.

“And when you go from that hot summer sun to plunging into water that’s only 40-50 degrees, your body says, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in trouble,’” said Murphy.

J.J. Edwards, the stepmother of Elijah Spratt, doesn’t want any other young swimmers to find themselves in trouble at Twin Rivers Park, where her stepson went into the water, so she and Amy Jacobson, a family friend, will be returning to the park to conduct a second lifejacket donation drive on July 13, from 2-4 p.m., after their first donation drive on July 6.

Jacobson explained that their eventual goal is to set up another loaner lifejacket station at Twin Rivers Park.

“I understand that the county doesn’t want to encourage people to swim in the river, even with lifejackets, because of how dangerous it is,” Jacobson said. “But people who have grown up here take it for granted that they can swim here.”

“This is the first time I’ve been back here since he drowned,” said Edwards, who received her first lifejacket donation on July 6 from Ren Leach and his son Cameron, who was a classmate of Spratt’s. “The water doesn’t look that fast. It’s so shallow now, but it wasn’t that way just a few days ago.”

Spratt’s drowning was the eighth in Snohomish County and the second in the Stillaguamish River for this year. One day after his drowning, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team was called to River Meadows Park on July 1, and joined Sheriff’s deputies and a local fire unit in rescuing two kayakers and a group of five people floating down the river on inflatable devices. On July 5, the Dive Team, Sheriff’s deputies and the Technical Water Response Team responded to a reported drowning in the Darrington area.

In response to Edwards and Jacobson’s campaign, Rochon noted that lifejacket loaner cabinets in Snohomish County are located where there are designated swim areas.

“The lifejackets for rivers are different in their construction and buoyancy than the lifejackets used in lakes and pools,” Rochon said. “The lifejackets used in the loaner program are for calm waters, not rivers. Snohomish County Safe Kids and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Marine Services Unit do not encourage people to swim in moving waters due to the temperature, current, shifting bottoms and hidden hazards. Those hazards are constantly changing and are deadly. None of this should detract from the tragic loss of a 10-year-old boy with his life ahead of him. The thoughts and prayers of the many responders from that incident go out to the family.”


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