Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

July 9, 2013

UPDATE: Two tragedies overshadow weekend activities at PK Lake


Mineral Wells Index

— By LIBBY CLUETT

POSSUM KINGDOM LAKE – Independence Day festivities at Possum Kingdom Lake, last weekend, were marred with tragedy, not once, but twice.

Three-year-old Wyatt Terasas was pronounced dead at Palo Pinto General Hospital Sunday evening, according to Palo Pinto County Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Charlie “Coppy” Hodgkins Jr.,

The boy, who lived in Vernon, Texas, with his mother, was with his father (from Loving, Texas), swimming at PK Lake’s Sandy Beach Park, Hodgkins said.

When he was reported missing to the BRA, divers were immediately dispatched to search for Terasas and, upon finding him, sent the child to PPGH via ambulance, where Hodgkins declared the child deceased.

Hodgkins said he sent the child’s body to Southwest Medical Examiners, in Dallas, for an autopsy.

According to BRA Public Information Judi Pierce, the boy’s body was found outside the designated swim area at Sandy Beach Park.

“It is believed that the boy’s parent searched for him for some time before calling 911,” she added.

The Palo Pinto County Sheriffs Office dispatch log indicates the boy’s father called dispatch at 3:41 p.m. Sunday.

Shortly before responding to the call regarding Terasas’ disappearance, BRA Rangers and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Game Wardens recovered the body of Lubbock resident Lindsey Culver, 27, at Hells Gate Cove, Pierce said.

Culver reportedly was swimming from a boat in the cove during the day, Saturday. PPCSO dispatch received a call about her disappearance at 9:11 p.m. that night  just before the fireworks show was set to begin. Palo Pinto County Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Shawn Humphries, who was called to the scene, said the BRA “raised the flag [indicating that] she was missing at that time.”

Before cancelling the annual display – which Humphries said drew an estimated 200 to 300 boats to the Hells Gate vicinity Saturday night – he said the BRA and TPWD went “boat-to-boat” to each boat.

“Before they called the scene a recovery or accident,” he noted, “they searched and loudspeakered everyone, which is quite amazing they did that so fast.”

“Nobody wants to cancel any kind of event,” he added. “I think they exhausted all possible efforts before they moved people out and they immediately started a recovery effort.”

Crews searched until 2 a.m. Sunday and resumed searching around 8 a.m., Pierce said. At 2:24 p.m. they found Culver’s body in 25-to-35-feet of water, using side-scan sonar. Humphries then made a positive identification and said he sent her body to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner for an autopsy.

Immediately following the recovery of Culver’s body at Hells Gate, divers and support crews, including a family grief counselor, were dispatched from to Sandy Beach to find 3-year-old Terasas.

In both cases, drowning was tentatively listed as the cause of death.

With the summer just underway, the recreation season at PK Lake has experienced a seemingly high rate of drowning deaths.

“Our percentages [of drowning deaths] have increased this year over prior years,” said Humphries, who recalls a period when the lake “had only one drowning in nine years.”

“This is a real unfortunate year,” he said. “It’s tragic in my opinion.”

The weekends deaths mark 2013’s third and fourth potential drowning deaths in PK Lake.

In mid May, Azle resident Jose Juan Garcia, 35, died, also in the Hells Gate basin area, after he jumped into the lake off a Gaines Bend boat ramp at a home where he and others were working construction, according to Humphries.

At the time, Humphries said that when Garcia “became in distress,” both his colleagues and the resident homeowner promptly came to his aid. The homeowner quickly donned SCUBA gear and jumped in the lake to retrieve Garcia, he explained. However, he noted that efforts by those at the scene and by EMS workers, when they arrived, were ultimately unsuccessful.

“We requested an autopsy,” he told the Index in May. “We do that in accidental deaths so there are no questions that arise later.”

In early June, Newcastle resident Justin Lee Utley, 22, died of drowning, according to the BRA. Humphries, who pronounced Utley dead at the scene in the Rock Creek area of the lake, said he was “swimming behind a paddle boat and went under.”

While there are laws regarding flotation devices for minors riding on or being towed behind boats that are underway, Pierce noted, “There are no laws that we are aware of requiring flotation devices for swimmers. All BRA parks currently have notices regarding hazards while swimming and boating on the reservoir.”

“We consistently, every year, have drownings at the lake,” said Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer.

“Some of them, you don’t know why they went down … it’s grown adults that haven’t been drinking or anything else,” he explained.

“With a child, they need supervision. I mean, nobody should stop looking at them and they should have flotation of some type.

“When a child’s in the water, you should not look away from them. Have somebody – if you have to post different grownups to do it – watch the children, keep a headcount and be out there with them,” he said.

Although Sandy Beach typically has a long, sloping beach, Mercer said when the lake is down, like it is this year, swimming areas can get “real steep.”

Mercer indicated he would like to get some type of billboard posted, which PK Lake visitors would encounter as they enter the peninsula, that reminds them of the dangers of swimming in the lake.