A year ago this Sunday evening, Athens authorities received the call, the second one like it in as many years: someone had disappeared beneath the surface of the Hocking River near White’s Mill.
Initial reports were that the man, later identified as 27-year-old Devin Gargia of Athens, had jumped into the river above the old White’s Mill dam. Later it came out that witnesses told authorities Gargia had fallen into the river rather than purposefully jumping in.
A three-day search ended with no sign of him. Presuming that everything unfolded as reported, he could be in the Gulf of Mexico now or anyplace along any waterway between here and there.
"There are no updates on the case," Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle noted Thursday. " Obviously, his remains have not been located or we would have released that information to the public."
Just under a year earlier, Steve Lippson, 40, of Racine in Meigs County, drowned while saving his son after the two had gone over the dam while they and others were kayaking. In that incident, Athens Police officers saw the victim in the water, but he disappeared as they moved to rescue him and the others.
The Hocking River and our other waterways run high this time of year (and other times as well). They become dangerous places, even though they seem placid and nonthreatening most of the time. It’s the warm weather that makes them especially alluring.
The Athens Fire Department has a strong contingent of rescue swimmers. I’ve watched them spend a lot of time training for events such as the Lippson drowning and the Gargia disappearance.
Do please contemplate it: In addition to running in to burning buildings, these guys and mutual aid divers are willing to jump into dangerous, turbulent water with zero visibility or close to it, and to feel around in hope of finding a dead body. This isn’t a job for just anyone, and even as we should thank our military and cops, we should thank our firefighters and rescue divers when we encounter them.
"While we provide many services, the Athens Fire Department does not provide dive services," said Athens Fire Chief Robert Rymer. "For that, we rely upon mutual aid agencies such as Rome Township, Little Hocking, Marietta, and Portsmouth Fire Departments.
"One of the many technical rescue services we do provide is Swift Water Rescue. This rescue entails retrieving victims from fast moving, and turbulent waters by boat or swim retrieval." It's frightening stuff that requires a lot of sometimes-dangerous training.
Our job is to keep them from having to put their training to the test. While these brave souls are willing to poke around among the rocks and mud looking for our mortal remains, it’s unlikely that it’s something they look forward to doing.
We’re in the middle of this year’s batch of spring and summer floods, and as always they’re both terrifying and a wonder to behold. A waterway called Federal Creek runs along my property; sometimes it submerges a good piece of that property. It’s called Federal Creek because it has 13 tributaries, like the 13 original colonies.
Each of those tributaries – one of which also runs along a side of my property – is between two hills and gets filled by the runoff when it rains. Federal Creek, in turn, joins the Hocking River northeast of Stewart. The Hocking meets the Ohio River at Hockingport, the Ohio joins the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, and the Mississippi joins the Gulf of Mexico at Pilottown, Louisiana.
So something dropped or fallen into any of those smaller streams can end up in the world’s great oceans, be it a Styrofoam packing peanut or the remains of a human being, though it should be noted that it’s far more likely for either of those things to get stuck somewhere along the way.
But I digress.
The semi-navigable Hocking River has its hazards, and White’s Mill is not the one that frightens me the most. The Old Canal Dam, upriver from the West State Street Park portage, is described in a Department of Natural Resources guide as the site of “Large timbers, Iron spikes, Rocks…” Local lore has dangers up to and including giant fish and turtles, terrible spiky people traps, and more in the waters just below White’s Mill. My guess is that at least some of this is conflation with the Old Canal Dam hazards. The giant fish and turtles are not at either place.
Neither place is a good spot to go paddling around in high water, such as we have now and will continue to have from time to time.
There is also from time to time talk of doing something to make it all safer. Last summer there was discussion of finding a way – meaning getting federal money – to make the White’s Mill drop-off less dangerous. This would involve the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been known to do some good work but which has done some disastrously bad work, too. (Pretty much the entire State of Florida is a fine example of the latter.)
Athens Service-Safety Director Andy Stone met with Corps of Engineers people in January and has applied for money for a White’s Mill Dam project, though there’s no word yet from the Corps. If it is approved, it would be on grounds of aquatic ecosystem improvement instead of keeping people from drowning, but “if it weren’t for the safety aspect, I probably wouldn’t be pursuing it,” he said Wednesday.
The fact is, there’s no safe way to play in our local waterways when they’re in flood. There are various slogans – “turn around, don’t drown” is the popular one now – to discourage us from entering flooded areas in our cars, but we shouldn’t enter flooded streams in our cars, boats, water wings, swimming trunks, or anything else unless we know what we’re doing, which most of us don’t.
The difference between low water and high water is stark and stunning. The difference in the danger between the two is, too.
Let’s not make it three years in a row.
Editor’s note: "The View From Mudsock Heights" appears weekly in The Athens NEWS. You can reach Dennis E. Powell at email@example.com.