Why are drownings increasing at Percy Priest Lake?

Submerged forest, cold water increase danger, make bodies hard to recover

Friday, July 8, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 28
By Colleen Creamer

Jeremy Cross, 36, was canoeing with his 11-year-old son and a family friend when they encountered high winds and rough waters near Hole in the Wall Island at J. Percy Priest Lake.

Cross, a swimmer, was not wearing his life vest when his boat toppled over. He attempted to put his vest on, according to reports, but vanished before he could gear up.

That was April 2 of this year, and more than two months later, Cross’s body has yet to be found, even with thermal imaging, sonar and search-and-rescue dogs.

Why the experts can’t find the body is a heartbreaking puzzle for families and for those whose job it is to police and tend to the lakes. Even more upsetting is the increase in the number of drowning deaths on Priest Lake in the past five years.

Across the timeline since Percy Priest Lake’s completion in 1968, deaths on both Old Hickory Lake and Priest Lake, the two lakes that serve the Nashville population, have decreased. But in the past five years, the death toll at Percy Priest Lake has risen.

There were 19 fatalities on Priest Lake from 2000 to 2009. From 2010 to 2015, the number is at 18 – and it’s only mid-summer.

During the 2015 recreation season, 14 people drowned at the Nashville District’s 10 lakes in the Cumberland River basin, and nearly all victims were not wearing life jackets, Army Corps of Engineers records reveal.

Sometimes the victims’ bodies turn up on their own. Hermitage resident Khosrow (Tony) Raissian, 55, went out on Percy Priest Lake with neighbors on May 11, 2013, he jumped from a pontoon boat, went under, surfaced briefly, went down and never came back up. After days of searching, his body eventually surfaced on May 26, 15 days later.

‘Playing around’

The Corps wants to get the message out about the dangers of potential lake drownings and the importance of wearing life jackets before another tragedy strikes.

To heighten awareness, The Corps of Engineers launched a national water safety campaign called “Life Jackets Worn - Nobody Mourns.”

Most drownings and/or boating deaths could have been avoided if the swimmer or boater had simply been wearing a flotation vest, says Lee Roberts, Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer, Nashville District.

“I would boil it down to people taking unnecessary risks around the water. Some of it is due to age. You also have teenagers jumping off cliffs not knowing what’s in the water,” he adds.

“It could be a number of things, people swimming alone, people swimming beyond their abilities.”

In early June, Vanderbilt University pitcher Donny Everett, 19, drowned at Normandy Lake near Manchester. The Coffee County Sheriff’s Department reported that the athlete tried to swim across the lake during a fishing trip, that Everett called for help to his friends who thought he was “just joking around.’’

Police officials say drugs and alcohol did not play a part in Everett’s death.

Friends of Raissian also reported that they thought he was “playing around.’’

One thing seems certain; the deaths of Everett and Raissian were not “Hollywood” drownings with the person thrashing about.

A.J. Meadows, who works security with Four Corners Yacht Club, sits near a sign that lists the number of drownings that have happened in Percy Priest Lake.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Some lake deaths, according to data, are related to boating accidents, but the mystery of others who have drowned at Percy Priest Lake has some people on community forums such as Reddit wondering not only why people are drowning but also what is taking so long for those people to be found.

Underwater trees

Percy Priest Lake was designated as a recreational lake meant for swimming and boating. It was also designed, as were most of the lakes in the Tennessee system, as a fishing lake.

To that end, mature trees were left, according to the clearing plan, below the water line to act as a habitat for fish, which might explain why it’s so difficult to locate those who have drowned at Priest Lake.

The specs for reservoir clearing state: “All trees and stumps not defined as brush that extend above elevation 475 shall be removed.”

The typical summer level of Percy Priest Lake is roughly 490 feet above sea level. Current levels for the beginning of this summer season, however, are about three feet lower than average due to a lack of spring rain, so those trees are a little closer to the surface.

“We have trees that come up to about 20 feet from the surface,” says Mark Travis of Mark Travis Crappie Guide Service http://www.crappieguideservice.com.”

Travis employs sonar and other high-tech tools to find fish.

“They (trees) are some of the magic that makes Percy Priest Lake such a good lake for fishing. Most people don’t believe that the trees are there. They think they rotted away, but there is a flooded forest in that lake. I love it, but it does make it harder to get people up. I also think that has to do with the cold water.”

Percy Priest Lake can be extremely cold, particularly in the spring when upper lake temperatures betray the lake’s cold depths. The cold water makes it easier for a body to stay “intact” and not rise to the surface, as eventually do the bodies of so many drowning victims. As well, cold water also makes it much easier for people to drown because cold muscles struggle more to function.

The lake also is massive – 14,200 acres of water at summer levels – covering portions of Davidson, Rutherford and Wilson counties.

One family’s ongoing grief

All the caveats about water safety and life vests do little good to soothe Christie Belcher, the mother of Cross’ son, Gage, who was witness to his father’s struggle against the tempestuous waters that ill-fated day in April.

Belcher says she goes to the lake weekly to look out, to grieve and to wonder. Though TWRA agents are in contact with Cross’ parents, she says that they are not returning her phone calls, adding her son, who “is overwhelmed with guilt,” needs closure. Finding his dad, she says, would help with that.

“They were so close,” Belcher adds. “His Dad made every day an adventure for that kid. It’s like there’s no Jeremy. It’s like they gave up. Gage had to fight to save his daddy, then watch him fight for his life and then die, and we still can’t even have closure.

“I go to the lake all the time, but my son can’t go to the lake. There is no way for him to mourn his dad.”

Cross says he is unaware of Belcher’s calls, offering that she had likely been contacting the investigating officer. He adds that an officer has been dedicated to patrol the lake searching for Cross’ body.

“I have spoken to officers that have been on the force for 18 years, and they’ve said they’ve never seen anything like this,” Cross says.

Tangled in debris

The Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District manages the lakes in the Cumberland River Basin: Center Hill Lake; Cheatham Lake; Cordell Hull Lake; Dale Hollow Lake; J. Percy Priest Lake; Lake Barkley; Lake Cumberland; Laurel River Lake; Martins Fork Lake; Old Hickory Lake.

The Tennessee River basin and its 33 reservoirs and lakes are attended to by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Lakes and reservoirs in Western Tennessee fall under the management of the Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) enforces rules and regulations on all lakes and reservoirs in Tennessee and performs investigations on all deaths on Tennessee waters related to boating.

TWRA spokesperson Barry Cross says that it comes down to having a basic respect for the water. One thing is true, Cross adds, that lakes and reservoirs “seem more benign” to the general population, at least in comparison with the common perception about ocean waters.

“It is really a common sense thing,” he says. “There’s nothing really bad under the water, but it is not a backyard pool. People have to realize you get out there, and you are swimming around near the bank maybe and you get tangled up in some debris.

“Now, all of a sudden you are struggling, and if you start to panic then you run the risk of swallowing water. Now you are in trouble.”

Why some swimmers drown

Even a good swimmer who gets thrown into the water unexpectedly can take in water and get disoriented quickly, according to drowning experts. Fatigue can also become a factor.

Travis’s longtime friend and fisherman, Gerry Patterson, a swimmer, but also was elderly, was tossed into the water when his pedestal chair either dislodged or broke at Percy Priest Lake on July 16, 2014. Patterson was not wearing a life vest.

“Gerry was very conscious of the water,” Travis says. “When you are thrown out like that, it spooks you. People have been swimming in the lake for years, but when you are put in that water quickly, they say your natural reaction is to open your mouth and to breathe, and then you suck in a bunch of water.

“So, if you are already starting to choke when you hit the water, it just doesn’t get better from there. I have been told that by several folks.”

Travis adds that heavy usage of the lake, even during cooler seasons, makes drownings more likely there.

“Percy Priest is one of the most heavily used lakes in Tennessee,” he says. “That lake just gets hammered. It’s a tough situation out there as far as people. People are thinking, ‘Hey, it’s May.” People don’t understand what the cold water does to them.”

In 2015, according to Corp data, more than 33 million people came to play at the 10 lakes in the Nashville District, and that number, given the precipitous growth of the Middle Tennessee region, will certainly rise.

During early summer and late spring, the temperature of the water below the surface does not even nearly match the feel of the water at the top, leaving some people to believe the water is warmer than it actually is, says Glenn Moates, assistant boating and law enforcement chief for TWTA.

“How your body responds to cold water has been documented,” Moates says. “It is not like what you might think. If you are in cold water for very long at all, your muscles don’t work very well because your body is trying to conserve heat, so you can’t swim as well as you thought you could.

Families prepare to hit the water at Four Corners Yacht Club.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“Probably most people can’t swim as well as they think they can anyway, though you may have been a great swimmer 20 years ago.”

In the last 10 years, 88 percent of all Army Corps public water-related fatalities were men, and 68 percent were between the ages of 20 and 60, records compiled by the USACE National Operations Center for Water Safety show.

Questions about how people who can swim can drown in Tennessee lakes “comes up every year,” Moates says.

“It (the questioning) is a pattern, and it has always been a pattern,” he explains. “But people fall out of a boat or people have a boating accident, and if you are not wearing a life jacket, there’s a real good chance you are going to drown.”

Then again some, like Raissian, who jumped into the lake from a pontoon boat and then drowned among friends, leaves a mystery behind as to why a good swimmer could just go under and not come up.

“There could be any number of things. It could be that they’re having a medical condition,” says Roberts. “They could be going into shock from the cold water.

“Many things can contribute to someone getting into trouble. People are diving into water not knowing what’s under it, and people in boats are sometimes not paying attention to navigational buoys. Of course, alcohol can contribute to it.”

Avoidable risks

Everett’s effort to swim across Normandy Lake seems innocent enough, but then again so does cliff jumping for many who attempt it. Jumping off the cliffs at a number of places on Priest Lake has been a rite of passage for many teens and young adults in the region – and it can be fatal.

In August of last year, a 20-year-old man from Chicago drowned after he jumped from a cliff near Elm Hill Marina. In 2012, 20-year-old Travoris Nawls jumped off a cliff at Percy Priest Lake near Long Hunter State Park.

Witnesses reported that Nawls jumped, surfaced briefly, and then went back under the water.

Last year, Daniel Chapman, 44, a non-swimmer, was attending a cookout at Four Corners Marina at Percy Priest Lake when he apparently sat down in a chair that was too close to the edge of the dock. At around 8 p.m., his chair slipped and he was tossed in the water. He subsequently drowned.

Moates says certain lakes will have higher incidence rates and for reasons that are not well understood.

“What you might see is a shift from one year to the next. There may be a particular lake that has more for some reason.

“You can’t really predict it. You don’t know why it’s happening on that particular lake,” says Moates who adds that the numbers of drownings statewide were down last year.

Moates’ message is to keep it simple.

“Our primary message every year is wear your life jacket,” he says. “Don’t drink and boat. Be aware of your surroundings when you are driving a boat. Keep a good look out. Take a boater education class.

“If you do those things you’re going to have fun. If you do the simple things, it will be fine.”

New, old regulations

With boaters and swimmers on the rise, so is the expected use of drugs and alcohol on Tennessee lakes. The TWRA wants the public to know that there are consequences.

Drinking alcohol can also result in a “boating under the influence” (BUI) conviction, according to the TWRA, just as drinking while driving a car can result in a DUI. Operating a boat with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent or higher is illegal in Tennessee.

Conviction for operating under the influence can result in fines of up to $2,500 for a first offense, $2,500 for a second and $5,000 for the third offense. As well, a jail sentence of 11 months and 29 days may be imposed for any conviction and operating privileges may be suspended from one to 10 years.

Scene of latest death at Percy Priest Lake

Jeremy Cross was canoeing with his son, 11, in early April near Hole in the Wall Island when he toppled from the canoe without a life vest. His body has not been recovered.

-- Leigh Melton Singleton | The Ledger; Google Maps

There are some rules for boating in Tennessee that some might not be aware of.

Residents born after January 1,1989, for example, must now have in their possession a TWRA-issued card showing proof of successful completion of the TWRA-administered boating safety exam.

TWRA also mandates that a U.S. Coast Guard approved flotation device must be worn by everyone on board vessels being operated within marked areas below any dam.

As well, children 12 and younger are required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD “while on the open deck of a recreational boat, when the boat is underway.’’

Children under 12 also are not allowed to drive a powered boat of more than 8.5 horsepower unless accompanied by an adult who can take control of the boat.

Moates says it’s important for parents to keep their eyes on children because it takes only a minute or so for a child to drown. It can happen quickly and silently – and in shallow water.

TWRA provides “loaner lifejackets” at many recreational sites.

“We’re not here to keep them from having fun,” Moates says. “We want people to come out and have fun, and we want them to be safe doing it so that at the end of the day they can go home as a family.

“One death is too many. These families suffer a horrible tragedy whatever the circumstances.”

A complex system

Roberts says flood-risk reduction is the reason for the entire dam and reservoir system, adding that there are no natural lakes in Tennessee.

“Of course, water quality was another reason. Each lake has a different purpose, and they are congressionally authorized purposes,” he adds.

“For instance, Percy Priest Lake has hydropower as a purpose. However, it does not have navigation for this purpose because it does not have a lock. So, it is one of the few that was authorized for recreation.”

Old Hickory Lake is a “run of the river” project on the Cumberland River, he explains, which means that commercial barge traffic navigates on the river and through the lake using Old Hickory Lock.

“Before the dams were built, you had times of drought, and then you had times of flooding, which caused lots of damage,” Lee adds.

“We had some great floods, and that was part of the reason that the Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority came up with the dam system.”

The USACE National Operations Center for Water Safety reports that the greatest number of water-related fatalities involved people swimming in areas that are not designated for swimming.

As well, 27 percent of boating fatalities involved people falling overboard.

All agencies in the lake system say swimming should be restricted to areas designated for swimming because they have been pre-scouted underwater to make sure there is nothing dangerous underwater.