By Benjamin Cohn
Weaverville – The drowning death of 28-year-old Sterlin Swinton at Reems Creek Falls should serve as a brutal reminder of the dangers inherent in recreational water activities. The Tribune sat down with a representative from Weaverville’s Fire Department to explore the ways that readers can improve their knowledge of water safety and to hopefully keep themselves alive if they find themselves in water over their heads.
Lieutenant Clint Henson, second-in-command for the team’s A-shift, gave some insight as to what emergency rescuers recommend for keeping safe in the great outdoors. “Obviously, if you’re out at the lake and you have kids, you want to supervise on them,” he said. “Keep your eyes on them, that they’re there. Make sure they know how to swim. If they don’t, lifejackets.”
Another tip Henson passed on is the idea to avoid water sports like kayaking in areas where there are “…extreme flood waters. We have some guys who are big into kayaking, and that’s another [safety tip], learn to read your currents in the river. You see a lot of people go out there [on the water] Zen Tubing and that’s where they get in trouble.”
Henson got into some detail about Swinton’s death at Reems Creek Falls and the scenario that allowed for his death to happen. “What that does is that hydraulic can pull you under. The forces of it will sit here and spin and keep you under the water. Basically, drown you. Eventually, it will spit you out. Eventually. Even after you’re dead. The gentleman that was down there, I was there on the recovery.”
The Tribune inquired as to what Swinton could have done to potentially save himself, but it seems that once caught in the vicious grip of hydraulic forces, his fate was sealed. “You can try stuff [to save yourself], but a lot of times, that force is going to keep you submerged,” Henson explained.
“You can try to ball up … like a cannonball, that’s one method. It kind of makes your shape not as fanned out … to where you’re curled up. It’ll treat you like a rock.” He explained that reducing the surface area exposed to the hydraulic forces might limit its deleterious effects.
“As far as drownings go, if you’re out on the water, if you’re within ten feet of the water, have a life jacket on. As far as fishermen go, I know a lot of people wear waders. The big thing is, once they fill up, you’re buoyant. Like you’re floating. It equalizes out. I got a thing about that years ago when I was fishing. I had a fly-fishing guy tell me, ‘You ever think about just letting them [waders] fill up? Once they fill up, you’re equaled out.”
The main point Henson reinforced over and over was to educate yourself as to the location you’re planning to visit and to come prepared.
“Educate yourself on the streams. Obviously, there [could] be all sorts of environmental hazards out there. Snakes, stuff like that. As far as the drownings go, for us, when we’re not rescuing people, we won’t allow people ten feet from the river without a life jacket on. It’s like a pool. There’s so many slick surfaces that you could slip and fall.” Henson couldn’t confirm the old warning against swimming within 30 minutes of eating. He said it wasn’t covered in any of the fire department’s training.
“We’ve never really trained on it,” he said. “If you eat a light lunch or something you’d be okay.” Asked what the concern was, he responded that, “you could cramp, you could get sick. Start throwing up and, in the process of throwing up, aspirate. Then you can’t get on stable ground to maintain yourself. You’re out there scrambling and then you start going under because you’re sitting here basically treading water.”
The lieutenant agreed that going out in numbers is absolutely a significant safety precaution. “Take that incident [at Reems Creek Falls]. He was with family, or he was with somebody. But if you go anywhere like that, if you have people there and something does happen and you’re unable to help yourself, they can help you or they can call for help. If you do go solo, I go fishing by myself a lot. You call somebody. You say, ‘hey, this is where I’m going.’ Tell them where you’re going, how long you’re going to be there. Let them know when you get out, so you always have some kind of contact chain going on.”
Areas of Weaverville and Woodfin have proven especially vulnerable to flash flooding recently. The Tribune encourages its readers to exercise an abundance of caution when engaging in water sports or other potentially-dangerous recreational activity.