Drowning Dangers on the Mississippi River
By: Kate Scott

CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO -- This has been a deadly week on the Mississippi River. Over the past week, three Heartland kids have drowned in its muddy waters. On Monday morning, rescue crews pulled the body of 12-year-old Rontraz Carter from the river. Carter fell into the water Friday near Caruthersville. He was playing on a barge with some friends at the time of the accident.

Authorities have also identified a body found in the Mississippi River on Friday as that of 13-year-old Sherry Hodges of Western Kentucky. Autopsy results show she drowned. Sherry and her friend, 12-year-old Kayla Luter, disappeared while swimming in the river in Carlisle County last Monday. Crews found Luter's body on Tuesday night.

So what is it that makes the Mississippi River such a deadly force? On Monday, Cape Girardeau firefighters were out on the river brushing up on their own water rescue techniques. They gave Heartland News a vivid demonstration of why the Mississippi is a force to be reckoned with, and what you should do if you see someone in danger of drowning.

“The river's a very dangerous place to be,” says Cape Girardeau Fire Captain John Ryan. “You have undertows, you have currents, and then you have debris in the river, which you really have to worry about.” And those are just a few of the reasons that Cape firefighters say the Mississippi is as mighty as its nickname suggests. On Monday afternoon, a team of trained water rescuers demonstrated the river's pull by dropping a child-sized mannequin into the water. In a matter of seconds, onlookers could see the undertow pulling the dummy down deeper, and the current dragging it away. “In two minutes, the victim was a quarter mile downstream in this current,” describes Ryan. And what if it had been a real person? “When a person's in the water, and they're in swift current, they're fighting for air,” Ryan explains. “And you can only do this for so long, for about 45 seconds. By then you're really tired and it's hard to keep your head above water, and the chances of drowning are very great.”

So if the river's a force you can't fight on your own, how do you help someone who's in trouble? “There are four methods to rescue a person…Reach, Throw, Row, and Go,” lists Ryan. “Reach is when you grab any object or a stick along the side of the water, and you reach out to them and pull them in. “If that doesn't work, if they're too far out, you can throw them a floatable object like a floatation device.”

Cape Girardeau firefighters demonstrated the third method, row, when they rescued the drowning mannequin by boat on Monday. But they say you should never attempt the fourth method in the Mississippi River, by going in the water yourself to save someone. “You're a stable object to the drowning person and they're going to stand on top of you,” warns Ryan. “They're going to drown you to get above the water.”

Cape Girardeau firefighters also offer a few more tips to avoid drowning dangers on the Mighty Mississippi, or any river, for that matter. Don't drink alcohol when you're on or near the river. And if you are swimming or boating, wear your life jacket. That would at least help you keep your head above the water until rescuers were able to reach you.