DNR officials warn Hoosiers about dangerous waterways after Memorial Day drownings

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind - Two Memorial Day open water drownings are prompting Indiana Conservation Officers to warn Hoosiers to stay away from dangerous areas on Indiana waterways.

Investigators searching for Christopher Demarrco, 20 Indianapolis, recovered a body matching his description from a quarry at White Rock Park Monday.  The body of Autumn McCreery, 32 Edgewood, was also recovered from water at Cataract Falls in Owen County the same day.  Officials investigating McCreery’s apparent drowning said the area was surrounded by “no swimming” signs.

Captain Bill Browne, with the Indiana Department of Natural resources, says the holiday tragedies highlight the importance of heeding warning signs and thinking twice before going into potentially dangerous waters.

“When you see a sign that says don’t swim, it’s for your own purpose,” Browne said.  “For your own good reason, don’t go into those areas.”

Nearly 150 such dangerous areas are spread across Indiana waterways.  And not all of them have warning signs nearby.  Browne is urging Hoosiers to learn about the dangers of “low head” dams.

Low head dams lower the water levels on rivers across Indiana.  The effect is a small waterfall, which can be deadly when underestimated.

“That water and the force that’s coming over the face of the dam is very heavy,” Browne said.  “It will push the human body under, life jacket or not.  And you will come recirculating back into that again and again.  It’s a monster.”

Browne says the downward force of the water coming over the dam creates a churning, recirculating current that even trained rescuers try to avoid if possible.  Not even a life jacket can keep a person afloat if they’re caught in the churning waters.

“And we will tell you that this is a monster,” Browne said.  “We stay away from this.  “We always preach life jackets, but in here even a life jacket doesn’t help.”

A low head dam resulted in the drowning deaths of two Franklin High School students nearly two years ago.  17-year old Jason Moran and 18-year old Michael Chadbourne drowned in Edinburgh while trying to save their 16-year old classmate Sarah Mclevish, who had become caught in the churning water at the base of a low head dam.

Browne said the average age of a drowning victim near a low head dam is 20.  About a quarter of those victims drown while trying to save somebody else.

There are 146 documented low head dams on waterways across Indiana.  They’re common enough to be seen even in urban areas like the White River in downtown Indianapolis.  One such dam near the intersection of 16th Street and Riverside Drive is marked with a single sign about 20 feet away that says “Dam ahead.”  But if you are boating or swimming further up the river, it can be difficult to see the approaching dam.

Warning signage near low head dams is inconsistent in different parts of the state, Browne said.  While the DNR maintains Indiana waterways, it’s up to municipalities to put up signs, warning boaters and swimmers to stay away from the dams.

Browne says the DNR is working on a public information campaign, urging Hoosiers to become aware of where low head dams are located, and to stay away from them.  The department is also trying to work with cities and towns across the state, asking them to install more warning signs around low head dams.

There were 42 open water drownings in Indiana in 2015, down from 59 in 2014.  There have been 14 open water drownings so far in 2016.

Indiana Conservation Officers have much more water safety information compiled on their website, which you can find here.

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