By Edward RiveraJune 10, 2014
FORT WORTH, Texas - It was an overcast morning with a slight breeze coming from the lake May 22 when 250 students and staff members from Whitney Middle School arrived at Walling Bend Park on Whitney Lake in the midst of sirens and emergency vehicles responding to a 911 call.
A teenager jumped off a cliff and did not emerge from the water. As the arriving students debated if what was going on was real or not, they could see desperate family and friends atop the cliff speaking to game wardens and law enforcement officials.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Texas Fish and Wildlife Department and local Fire and Rescue and Emergency Medical Services boats arrive on scene as well. Divers make their way into the water and begin their search. Minutes later an Air Evac Lifeteam 51 helicopter lands nearby. As the student's attention is on the helicopter's arrival, their chatter is quickly silenced by a mother's wail as divers emerged from the water with her son's lifeless body.
As the grieving mother passes in front of the shocked students, the reality of the situation hits the young onlookers. Had this been a real accident, their friend and fellow classmate would be dead, and they too would be grieving.
For the third year, the Corps has presented its Forever 15: Tragedy on the Water safety program. The program for middle school students depicts a teen drowning along with a real-time look into the rescue and recovery process.
Modeled after the Shattered Dreams program which focuses on teen drunk driving, Waco Lake Park Ranger Randall McCartney developed the idea and Park Ranger Elizabeth Anderson helped implement the program at Waco Lake after a call from Headquarters, USACE to be creative in developing water safety messages.
"My kids would talk about the Shattered Dreams Program and at the time we were looking to develop something new and creative that would be impactful to drive water safety to a younger audience," said McCartney.
This year the crew at Whitey Lake incorporated cliff jumping into the scenario due to past deaths from the high risk activity.
"Many Whitney Middle and High School students, as well as, young adults come to the lake during the summer and cliff jump," said Tennille Hammonds, park ranger and project lead for this year's program. "It was imperative that we talk to the local community and those students about the hazards of cliff jumping."
To put on this program took the cooperation of more than 20 local, state, federal agencies, independent school districts and local businesses and community support groups. Using the scenario as an annual training exercise allowed for each agency to cover their expenses and not have to create a budget for the program.
According to Hammonds, not only is the exercise cost effective but allows for each agency to become familiar with one another's operations. "Having worked together during an exercise will ensure faster and more effective response during a real-life situation," said Hammonds.
Despite all the cooperation and teamwork between the agencies, it would take the cast of students and parents portraying the victim, family and friends who would bring the exercise to life. Students are chosen by their principal and have to audition and take a swim test to be considered for the lead role. The student with the best combination of swimming and acting ability is chosen.
"The hardest part was keeping still and trying not to shake because the water was cold," said Ryland Holt, who portrayed the drowning victim.
Fortunately for him it wasn't the hardest role in the program. That honor went to his mother, Jan. She would have to breathe life into the message, and drive it home to the student body in attendance through the emotions of a grieving parent.
"I saw the previous Forever 15 videos and it gave me a good overview of what was going to be happening. I tried to picture in my mind, as much as I could handle, and just mentally prepare for what was actually going to take place," said Jan.
According to Jan the day of the event was the hardest for her. "I just tried to imagine the horrendous emotions and hurt and fear...it was definitely difficult."
As the students were captivated by Ryland's recovery and Jan's raw emotions, they continued to observe the process all the way though Ryland being pronounced dead and placed into the hearse. The once giddy crowd of students departed the lake with a more somber tone and with an understanding of how dangerous cliff jumping could be.
Back at the middle school, the program ended with the return of Ryland to the school so students could see he was alive and well, and poignant words from guest speaker Gretchen May, whose son Eric Roy Garcia died July 3, 2004 jumping from the 20-foot cliff at Walling Bend Park.
"I feel this program is hard hitting and impactful," said McCartney. "It reaches out a little more than just a T-shirt and Frisbee with a water safety message on it."