Accidents Happen at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Usually Because People Break Commonsense Water Safety Rules

Lake Mead Marina, a popular launch site, had to be moved because of drought-induced low water levels. Photo by Roadsidepictures via Flickr.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which celebrated its 61st birthday August 11, sprawls over 1.5 million acres, mostly watery, and attracts almost eight million visitors a year. Nearly all return home safely with fond memories, especially of boating, jet-skiing, water skiing, fishing, swimming, scuba diving, and other fun at the park’s two huge impoundments, Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. Accidents do happen, though, and nearly always because people violate commonsense safety rules.

We’re nearing the end of the June-July-August peak season for water-based recreation at Lake Mead NRA, but as the park’s harried staff will attest, it’s never too late to urge visitors to temper their fun with appropriate caution.

Accident reports and summaries are instructive. Here is a sample of Lake Mead NRA water-related accidents reported by NPS online sources (especially the The Morning Report) during 2005-2008.

The first item is included because it provides an especially vivid (and poignant) description of the emotional impact of serious accidents that occur at the park. It also serves as a stark reminder that the scope of these tragedies extends beyond the victims and into the future.

PWC Fatality at Lake Mohave

[Excerpted (with slight changes) from an article that appeared in Small Craft Advisory magazine in 2007. Small Craft Advisory is a publication of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.]

Marissa Armijo probably loved to be towed up and down Lake Mohave, a reservoir in the Colorado River System just South of Las Vegas. No doubt she enjoyed spending time with her family and friends, as a 15-year-old student [and cross-country runner at Mohave High School], she reportedly had very many. The world was limitless as she explored the world around her until her last day on earth on Sept. 4, 2005 when she was struck and killed by a drunk boater with a blood alcohol level of .19—more than twice the legal limit. “It is a real tragedy,” said Emmett Kersey, Marissa’s grandfather, while attending an operating under the influence (OUI) checkpoint on August 22, 2006, almost a full year after the fatal accident. Officers from NDOW, Arizona Game and Fish and the National Park Service dedicated the checkpoint to Armijo in hopes of bringing some sense to the tragedy. Visibly emotional, Kersey could hardly say anything at all at the checkpoint except to thank all the officers present for their time and attention to the serious matter of drunk boating. He also asked that all the officers present show support at the sentencing of Marissa’s killer, ironically scheduled only a week after the OUI checkpoint.

The day of the accident, Marissa was being towed behind her boat when Jose Luis Huerta, 34, of Mexico zipped around the bow of the boat in a PWC and ran directly over Marissa, sending her to the Las Vegas trauma center with broken bones and severe head injuries.

Marissa was removed from life support and died three days later. Huerta didn’t even realize what he had done, according to Mike Maynard, NDOW game warden and investigating officer of the accident. “He sat there on the PWC without realizing what he had done,” said Maynard.

The swiftness, violence and senselessness of the accident disturbed even veteran officers who witness the daily chaos of the Colorado River System. “This was an emotional case for our officers,” said Fred Messmann, Nevada’s boating law administrator. “(Kersey) called to thank me for our efforts a couple weeks after the accident, and I had to tell him that it felt like we didn’t do enough—his granddaughter is dead. People who drink and boat just don’t get it.” Even though Messmann maintains that more could have been done, the legal proceedings following the accident were swift. Huerta was sentenced to 5-20 years in prison for operating a vessel under the influence, causing a fatality and ordered to pay $3,300 in restitution.

Messmann credits the swift justice in this case to the families’ involvement. “We always encourage people to work with the victim’s impact program through the Clark County (Las Vegas) District Attorney’s office,” said Messmann. “It is far more important for families to be there than it is for (police officers) to show up.” According to the Mohave Daily News, Armijo’s mother, Nannette Maynes, made the most emotional argument for justice during the sentencing, eliciting tears even from the other prisoners in court. “How can I put into words the sight of her bloody face, broken bone protruding through her arm and lifeless body laying in the bottom of my dad’s boat? How can I put into words, her laying on the beach with the life flight crew working over her and loading her in the helicopter while we stood helplessly by? … the anguish of watching Marissa’s life slip away after life support was taken off of her and holding her last heart beat in the palm of my hand, … how can I put into words, the prayers to God that he would take my life too because I know I would never be able to go on in this life ….

Critical Injury at Lake Mead National Recreation Area

On the afternoon of Saturday, May 13th, [2006] an 18-year-old woman from California was critically injured when hit by a boat propeller. The woman was riding on the back of a personal watercraft (PWC) being driven by a 16-year-old girl when the PWC drove in front of a boat operated by a 16-year-old male. He tried to avoid the PWC, but was not able to miss it completely. The boat hit the rear end of the PWC and the passenger was hit several times by the boat’s propeller. A witness to the accident called for help at about 2:20 p.m. and brought the injured woman to the launch ramp. She was treated by rangers and EMS personnel, then flown to [University Medical Center] Trauma in Las Vegas.

Fatality at Lake Mead National Recreation Area

At about 6:30 p.m. [on June 3, 2007], the National Park Service Dispatch Center received an emergency call about a possible drowning at the Special Events Beach. This area is a part of Boulder Beach on the Nevada side of Lake Mead. National Park Service Rangers and Nevada Department of Wildlife Wardens responded with a total of four vessels within 10 minutes of the call. Additional Rangers, Wardens, and Emergency Medical Service personnel also responded to the beach area in vehicles. A personal watercraft without a rider was adrift when Rangers and Wardens arrived on scene. Witnesses on other PWCs were able to tell Rangers the general area the man was last seen. About an hour after the original call came in, the body of a 44-year-old Las Vegas Man was recovered in 15 feet of water about 100 yards from the shoreline. He was not wearing a life jacket.

….[the victim] and his female companion were launching PWCs at the Special Events Beach at Lake Mead [when] the victim’s PWC became disabled. The victim may have been in the water trying to determine what the problem was. Several witnesses on PWCs, and on the beach, saw him disappear into the water. Several visitors on PWCs tried to locate him. Rangers and Wardens recovered his body in 15 feet of water. …. This is the 11th fatality [of 2007] at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. If this is a confirmed drowning, it will be the first drowning of the year. Rangers and Wardens want to remind all visitors to Lake Mead National Recreation Area to always wear your life jacket.

Man Drowns Near Hemenway Fishing Pier

Ronaldo Datangel, 45, drowned near the Hemenway fishing pier on June 1st [2008] while attempting to retrieve a boogey board that had floated away from shore. He was not wearing a life jacket. Datangel’s friends and family members saw him go under; they pulled him from the lake and immediately began CPR. The pier is located on the Nevada side of Lake Mead near the Hemenway launch ramp. At this time, rangers do not believe that either alcohol or drugs were factors in this presumed drowning. The Clark County Coroner will make the official determination about the cause of death. This is the third drowning and 13th fatality this year at Lake Mead.


Woman Fatally Injured When Struck by Boat Propeller

Lois Johnson, 54, died on Saturday, June 7th [2008] after being critically injured while swimming in Gasoline Alley. Witnesses reported that Johnson jumped into the water, then swam behind a vessel that was backing up and was struck by the propeller. Johnson was pulled from the water by bystanders, who transported her by private vessel to Katherine Landing. While en route, responding rangers met the vessel and provided advance life support. Johnson was taken to the Western Area Medical Center, then to University Medical Center, where she died from her injuries. Gasoline Alley is a popular boating area that is located on the Arizona side of Lake Mohave. The accident is currently under investigation. This was the park’s 14th fatality this year.

Cliff Diver Drowns In Lake Mead

A 23-year-old Prescott, Arizona, man was with a group of friends at Lake Mead on the evening of June 29th [2008] when he jumped off a 90-foot-high cliff near Sidewinder Cove on the Arizona side of the lake [and] did not resurface. A Nevada Department of Wildlife warden was in the area and was on scene within 15 minute. He tried to locate the man while rangers responded to join him, but was unable to do so. Las Vegas Metro PD divers subsequently recovered the body. Cliff divers often believe that they are jumping or diving into water that is much deeper than it is in reality. Additional dangers include rocks and outcroppings that are under the water and can’t be seen from above.

Man Drowns In Lake Mohave

An emergency call for help came into the park dispatch center around 7 p.m. on the evening of Saturday, July 5th [2008]. The caller told the dispatcher that a man and woman were in the lake at Six-Mile Cove and were having difficulty returning to the shoreline. The woman had evidently been having trouble, and the man had gone out to help her. Neither was wearing a life jacket. She made it back to shore and was airlifted to Valley Hospital in Las Vegas, but he disappeared. Rangers [recovered the victim’s body] the following day. He has been identified as Michael Henderson, 52, of North Las Vegas.

How Do You Stay Safe On and In the Water?

None of the accidents described in these reports can be attributed to equipment malfunction, malfeasance, or what the insurance industry terms “acts of God.” The deaths and injuries occurred because recreationists made mistakes that brought harm to themselves or others. All of these accidents were preventable, or if there is such a concept, very preventable.

You shouldn’t take part in water-based recreational activities while impaired by alcohol or drugs.

You shouldn’t operate watercraft and related recreational equipment without due regard for your personal safety and the safety of others.

You shouldn’t operate or ride in/on a watercraft of any sort without wearing a personal flotation device (life jacket).

You shouldn’t swim under conditions that exceed your abilities and which needlessly expose you and potential rescuers to risk of drowning.

You shouldn’t jump or dive into water of unknown depth, and without regard for underwater hazards.

You shouldn’t remain on the water and in exposed locations when lightning threatens.

You shouldn’t scuba dive without displaying the divers flag.

And you should never let yourself be lulled into thinking that kids won’t take stupid risks at every available opportunity.

Water safety experts and law enforcement officers would want to add more caveats, but these will do for starters. For information about water safety at Lake Mead NRA, consult this site and relevant publications of Arizona and Nevada state outdoor recreation agencies.

The really frustrating thing is that none of the water safety caveats, guidelines, or rules is difficult to comprehend or impractical to put into practice. That’s why, when we read accident reports like the ones provided here, we are less often inclined to think “how unfortunate,” and more often inclined to think “how senseless.”

Be careful out there.

Comments

Trivial point of clarification requested:

"On October 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the act that formally established the "Lake Mead National Recreation Area." This act redesignated the old Boulder Dam Recreation Area, whose boundaries had been substantially enlarged in 1947 to include the yet-to-be-filled Lake Mohave, in recognition of its equally significant recreational opportunities." Source: http://www.nps.gov/lame/parkmgmt/

So is this the date it was first called Lake Mead National Recreation Area (LAME to use the NPS abbrev.)? Or is it the one listed at Wikipedia: "The name was changed to Lake Mead National Recreation Area on August 11, 1947."? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Mead_National_Recreation_Area

Interesting question, Frank. The National Park Service considers LAME's birthday to be August 11, 1947, just as it is indicated in Wikipedia. If you'd like to see the NPS list of national park birthdays, see this site. The NPS considers the park birthdates to be the dates "... of the earliest legislative or executive actions authorizing or establishing the park areas." There are some inconsistencies here and there, mostly due to name-change redesignations.

I had 2 friends that drowned in Lake Meade on May 23 1980. I was only 13 when it happened but to this day I think about them

I still can't believe what happened to Marissa. I wasn't a close friend but I had been in classes with her for 3 years and talked to her often in class. She was a very sweet person and would befriend just about anyone. It still makes me very sad when I think about her. It was really devastating because of who she was and the fact that she was the first person I had ever known to pass away. Five weeks after her death, I had 2 more friends die. I wish I would've taken the time to get to know her more than I did, though I was lucky for having known her as much as I did.

God bless Marissa, we love you!