Family members react to teens' drowning in Red River in Shreveport, Louisiana, photo courtesy Shreveport Times
SHREVEPORT, LA - Six teens drowned late Monday after disappearing into a sinkhole on the Red River, leading to a tragedy that Shreveport Fire Chief Brian Crawford called the worst he's ever seen.
Family members told authorities the victims, between the ages of 13 and 18 from three families, didn't know how to swim and were wading in shallow water. They had been in the lake for about 10 minutes near the sandbar at the Charles and Marie Hamel Memorial Park.
They had one life vest.
"One child ventured off into an area that he was unfamiliar with, and some of the other children had gone off with him," Crawford said. "They went into the vicinity of an 18-foot sinkhole. ... And once one started toppling into that sinkhole grabbing a hold of another, trying to save another, eventually seven were pulled into the hole."
A bystander jumped into the water and rescued a 15-year-old, but the other six went under and never resurfaced. The sixth body was recovered nearly three hours later, in water that authorities said was between 18-feet and 25-feet deep.
"Unfortunately, I'm afraid, and it's with a heavy heart, to report that we have pulled so far (six) bodies from the river. ... I can honestly say that in my 26 years of service I've never seen anything of this magnitude. And I hope I never see it again," the fire chief said.
"It's truly catastrophic and I can only imagine the effect it has on the families."
The teen who was rescued was treated on the scene.
Emergency crews on both sides of the river responded to reports of a single person drowning just before 6:30 p.m., just south of the area. It took fire officials about 10 minutes to locate the area, and that's when they learned there were multiple victims.
Dive teams from Shreveport and Bossier fire departments, as well as members of the Caddo sheriff's office, searched the water about an hour before recovering the first body. By 10:30 p.m., all the bodies were recovered.
Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover, members of the City Council and Caddo Schools Superintendent Dr. Gerald Dawkins arrived at the scene with rescue crews.
Marilyn Robinson, a friend of the families, watched helplessly as the victims, five males and one female, went under. She said a large group of family and friends, including roughly 20 children, were out at the sandbar to barbecue, swim and have a good time.
They frequent the area and were familiar with the water, Robinson said.
"None of us could swim," the 38-year-old said. "They were yelling 'help me, help me. Somebody please help me.' It was nothing I could do but watch them drown one by one."
Louise Edwards also was among those who witnessed the teens go under the water.
"It was hard watching them and not being able to help," she said as tears rolled down her face. "Some people tried to jump in, but they were already gone. It's like a nightmare. Lord please help us, please."
City officials consoled family members and friends as they gathered at the park and waited to receive updates from authorities. They provided a SporTran bus for air and seating, along with water.
"It's all just a matter of trying to make the wait as comfortable as possible and to begin the process of helping them cope with this as a family and us deal with it as a city," Glover said.
The area where the teens drowned is not a public beach, and trenches had actually been dug to make it more difficult for people to enter the water, Glover said.
"The river's condition today, it has a little bit of current," said Donna Jackson with Caddo sheriff's marine unit. "It's like any other waterway or lake. If you don't know what's out there, the dangers like the drop off the jetty, this sort of thing can happen. We've been very fortunate in the last few years; everything has gone well. Unfortunately, this happened today."