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Recent drownings bring back scary memories for Dahlonega man

Many ignore lake’s swimming dangers, authorities say

POSTED: July 20, 2014 12:28 a.m.
NAT GURLEY/The Times

Rich Krebs pulls out one of the life jackets he bought after falling out of his boat and nearly drowning last year. This one, made by Onyx, is designed to be worn around the waist like a fanny pack. The wearer must manually pull the red handle for a CO2 cartridge to inflate the vest, then pull the vest over his head. An instructive video is on YouTube here.

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About 10 people die every day in America from drowning.

Last summer, Dahlonega resident Rich Krebs almost became a statistic.

Fishing with his nephew on Lake Lanier, Krebs fell headfirst off his 21-foot boat.

Before he could realize which way was up, Krebs found himself submerged several feet under the water, struggling to reach the surface.

Krebs said he was fully clothed when he fell in, shoes and all, which acted as a weight pulling him down.

“It was like having a brick tied around your neck,” he said.

With all his strength, Krebs said he flailed and kicked in the water until he surfaced, then began a grueling swim to the boat tens of yards away.

By the time he made it to the boat, Krebs was so spent he couldn’t pull himself up.

“I was totally and completely exhausted,” he said. “I was getting to the point where I couldn’t hold on.”

Krebs eventually, with the help of his nephew, managed to shimmy his way up the side of the boat and onto the deck. He was safe.

But Krebs said the near drowning scared him so bad he couldn’t return to the lake for about six weeks.

“I still get goose bumps thinking about it,” he added. “It was that scary.”

There are many reasons people drown. Sometimes they don’t know how to swim. Sometimes they overestimate their swimming abilities.

And sometimes they take things for granted, panicking when problems emerge, which exacerbates the situation.

Panic can lead to swallowing water and expending energy much quicker.

And drugs and alcohol often are at play. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports alcohol is involved in about 70 percent of accidental drownings.

But there is one common thread in accidental drownings.

“Every drowning victim we ever found, none of them had a life jacket on,” said Sgt. Mike Burgamy, Lake Lanier supervisor for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Krebs said the first thing he did before going fishing again after the death scare was to purchase several self-inflating life preservers.

He also purchased an emergency boarding ladder, which he rigged to the back of his boat.

Now Krebs doesn’t get near the water without first taking precautions.

“It can happen so quick,” he said. “It can happen to anyone.”

Indeed, drownings at Lake Lanier are all too common. And they are almost always preventable.

But sometimes it is unclear how people get in trouble in the water, leaving investigators to speculate about what went wrong.

Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Detective Scott Boggus recently investigated the drowning of 32-year-old Canon Callender, a Lawrenceville police officer who was last seen alive swimming to an island near Little Ridge Park.

Someone nearby heard screams for help before Callender went under. His body was later recovered in 8 to 10 feet of water.

“We don’t know the exact circumstances because there really were no witnesses,” Boggus said, adding alcohol and drugs were not responsible.

However, Boggus said it’s possible Callender cramped up on his swim to the island, which is about 100 yards from the lakeshore.

“That’s only speculation, but that could be it,” he added.

Burgamy said visitors to the lake often get in over their head, misjudging their swimming strength, the distance between points and the terrain under the surface.

Perhaps people just assume nothing bad could happen at such a heavily traveled and populated recreational lake.

“They just don’t think about the danger of open-water swimming,” Burgamy said.

Krebs said he knows just how easy it is to assume everything will be OK.

He has spent his life on the water fishing and learned to swim at age 3. He’s knowledgeable, experienced and strong, sporting a big frame.

But even Krebs found himself in trouble.

“I don’t wish that experience on anyone,” he said.

Burgamy recently investigated the drowning deaths of a father and son, Leonel and Elton Torres.

He said Elton went into the water chasing a ball, but could not swim. When he got in trouble, Leonel went in after him, but quickly encountered danger himself.

Sonar was used to locate the bodies.

Burgamy said investigators often have to deduce what went wrong based on previous experience, what they know about the victim’s actions and common factors that lead to drownings.

Another recent drowning at the lake, near Old Federal Park, involved 20-year-old Beto Silva. Burgamy said Silva was traversing a reef or sandbar before it gave way to deeper waters.

Another individual went in after Silva, but also fell into distress. He was later rescued and resuscitated.

For Krebs, the lessons learned that near-fatal day last summer live on.

He just hopes someone will read his story and learn the same lessons.

“If my story can save just one life, then it’s worth it,” he said.



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