Justin McLellan dove into Lake Grapevine a second after his friend.
The friend swam away. McLellan did not.
He struck the lake’s sandy bottom headfirst, severely injuring his spinal cord.
“The next thing I knew my friends are all staring at me and I couldn’t move,” said McLellan, 23, of Bedford. “I was trying to wave, to get them to come over. I was sitting in the water saying ‘help’ and going down.”
McLellan and his friends had swum in the cove known as Party Beach many times, and because he was on a pontoon boat he assumed the water was deep enough for him to dive. But the lingering drought has lowered lake levels dramatically across the region, creating a hidden danger.
Function gradually returned to his arms, but whether McLellan will walk again won’t be known for several weeks, if not months.
His injury alarmed Dr. David Smith, trauma department medical director for Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, not just for the severity, but because it happened the second weekend of May. Smith fears that the uncommonly low lake levels will increase the number of injuries, whether from diving into shallow areas or hitting a tree stump while skiing.
“When Justin came in, it was well before the start of what we call the summer holiday season,” Smith said. “This coming weekend is Memorial Day. Then we’ll have the Fourth of July. Then we’ll have Labor Day. These are all weekends that are extremely busy on our lakes. And with the changed lake levels, I’m concerned, and I want you to be safe on the lakes.”
At John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, no such injuries have been seen this year, but they’re expected, said administrative director Meg Bryant.
“I would think we would easily see between 5 and 10 injuries in the spring and summer that are critical,” she said.
McLennan laments not following a caution he’d heard many times.
“Don’t dive in the water without checking it first,” he said. “No, just don’t dive. Don’t dive.”
‘Wear life jackets’
Even in the best conditions, playing on lakes is dangerous.
Texas ranks No. 4 in the nation for boating accidents, and No. 3 for boating fatalities, a recent U.S. Coast Guard report said. In 2013, 31 deaths statewide were attributed to boating accidents, including one at Joe Pool Lake and two at Lake Lewisville.
Nationwide, 4,062 recreational boating accidents claimed 560 lives, injured 2,620 people and caused about $39 million in property damage in 2013, the Coast Guard said.
There were 10 percent fewer boating accidents, 14 percent fewer deaths and 12.7 percent fewer injuries in 2013 than in 2012, according to the report.
But an old problem persisted — drownings accounted for 77 percent of boating fatalities in 2013. Of those who drowned, 84 percent were not wearing life jackets.
So far this year there have been four drownings at area lakes, officials said.
“The main thing we want is for people to wear life jackets,” said Lt. Jennifer Kemp, a Texas Parks and Wildlife spokeswoman. “If I never have to tell another person that we’ve recovered the body of your husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, that would be awesome. I’ve been doing this 18 years. Nobody likes to do it.”
State law requires that all boats — even kayaks and canoes — carry enough life jackets for everyone aboard to have one. Unfortunately, wearing the devices isn’t mandated for anyone 13 or older, or for anyone on a craft that’s 26 feet or longer.
Last year, two people — one at Lake Grapevine and one at Lake Lewisville — who had been on party boats, which are usually 30 feet in length, drowned after going into the water without life jackets. Both victims had reportedly been drinking.
Kemp longs for the day when life jackets will be treated like seat belts are in wheeled vehicles.
“This is just like seat belts,” she said. “If your seat belt isn’t on and suddenly you need it on, it’s too late.”
‘A hard time launching’
No drownings on Tarrant County area lakes could be attributed to low lake levels, Kemp said. But she has an uneasy feeling about the impending boating season.
“I anticipate we’re going to start having accidents just because people who haven’t been out since last Labor Day will not realize that the whole layout of the lake has changed as far as tree stumps, sand bars, rocks, anything that’s been submerged,” Kemp said. “Maybe there’s a concrete something that’s been there for years and nobody knew about it, but all of the sudden it’s right under the surface.”
Lake Grapevine, for instance, is down 10.46 feet from its normal elevation. That doesn’t bother folks like Bedford resident Andy Powell, 51, who fishes three times a week from a pier next to the lake’s Dove Loop boat ramp. But he feels bad for the people who launch and retrieve boats there.
“These guys with the boats have a hard time launching,” he said. “That’s a lot of money going in and out of the water. If they hit a rock or something, a prop can cost $500.”
Kenny Winzen, 25, and Troy Baker, 28, both of Roanoke, were doing just that about 10:30 a.m. Thursday after a fruitless four hours of fishing.
“Not a bite all day, and we fished all the way to the dam and almost to the other end of the lake,” Winzen said. “All over the place it’s low.”
Neither man saw visible hazards, except right along the lake’s shore. The invisible problem, they said, is that the lake goes from deep to shallow quickly and unexpectedly.
So much, in fact, that they had a close call in Winzen’s 17 1/2-foot Bayliner.
Shallower than it looks
“We were in a cove … and the depth was around eight feet most of the way in,” Baker said. “It went to two feet in about five seconds and Kenny pulled the prop up and turned us around.”
Winzen said that, despite his familiarity with Grapevine, the shallow cove surprised him. His boat’s one-foot draft and relatively light weight likely averted disaster.
“A heavier boat would have lost a prop,” he said. “They’d have been on it.”
“It” happened to Winzen and another friend a couple of weeks ago on Eagle Mountain.
“We were cruising about 25 mph and hit a sand bar,” Winzen said. “It was soft, so there was no real damage to the boat and no one got hurt. It stopped the boat real fast. We jumped off the bow into about six inches of water. We had to push the boat about 30 yards just to get it unstuck.”
The continually dropping water level may eventually keep them off the lake.
Winzen said that Party Beach looks like any other cove, “but it’s two feet deep for a long way in. You wouldn’t think by looking at it that it’s that shallow.”