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Youth Group, Not Scouts run into trouble in canoes

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[besides bad weather what went wrong?]



Stranded teens feared for lives



Darlington students tell of their rescue from the Gulf of Mexico at 3 a.m. Sunday morning.


By Matt Tuck, Rome News-Tribune Staff Writer



What would you do if you were on a boat, drifting in darkness on the open sea, miles from civilization, cold, wondering about two of your friends who were alone in turbulent waters?


Darlington senior Matthew Payne, Rome, said he came to grips with his mortality and focused his attention on helping his friends.


I basically had come to the realization that we were all in very real danger and I might not make it back. For some reason, I was OK with that, but I was angry that I wouldnt be going alone, he said. I knew we had to do everything possible to stay together and find Sean and Clay.


Those two boys were never seen again alive.


Payne and seven other Darlington students, along with guide Steve Hall, an English teacher and girls soccer coach at the school, and Bryan Evans, assistant boys soccer coach and house duty staff member, took a paddling trip this past weekend into the Gulf of Mexico that turned deadly.


Freshmen Clay McKemie, 15, Rome, and Sean Wilkinson, 14, Acworth, got separated from the group late Saturday. Their bodies were found Monday morning.


Junior Leslie Beninato, senior Adam Moody, senior Sarah Fox, sophomore Jenni Ryan and freshman Christine Hatton also went on the trip.


Payne said they put their canoes, kayaks and a motorized catamaran, or cataraft, in the water at the mouth of the Suwannee River on Saturday.


It was close to 3 oclock, and the skies were clear, he said. When it had gotten too far to go back, it got dark. So we kept going. ... Then the wind picked up, and we started drifting away from land. I guess Mother Nature had it in for us that night, Payne said.


Although the National Weather Service had issued an advisory Saturday morning warning paddlers, Payne said they did not know the weather was going to take such a turn for the worse.


Hall, who was affectionately known as Meester, and Evans then started lashing the boats to the catamaran, after its engine had died. The canoes, Payne explained, had been spread apart during the trip to Coon Island, about a mile off the coast.


The canoe Clay and Sean were in got separated from the group, Payne said. We waited on them, but they never caught up, he said.


As darkness descended, Payne said he and other students flashed lights back and forth between them and the canoe, until the light from the canoe slowly faded away.


I wish things had turned out differently. ... This has really shaken me up. Its going to be a long time before I get over this, Payne said.


While Evans and five of the students stayed in the raft, Hall and Adam Moody set out to search for the missing boys and try for a cell phone signal. After that, there was nothing to do but wait, Payne said. Some of us started hallucinating. ... I was hearing rap music over the waves.


I hallucinated about seeing Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead dancing bears, Beninato, a Roman, said.


During the night and into early Sunday morning, the catamaran ropes loosened, and water started rushing into the vessel where Payne was sitting, Beninato said. We heard a whiff kind of sound, she said. I kept telling him he had to move and he had to lie on the bottom of the canoe (that was lashed to the catamaran).


Although Payne said he knew the water temperature was colder than the air, it still felt warm. Then I realized, My God, Im going into shock, he said. Then all the girls and Mr. Evans kept talking to me to keep me awake. ... I owe everyone in that raft my life.


For hours, they sat in the craft, talking to each other and wondering if they would ever make it home. Then, 7 miles from the shore, came what Payne described as the most beautiful sight Id ever seen, as a Coast Guard helicopter spotted them. At first, I wasnt sure if thats what I was hearing. I thought I was hallucinating again. Then hearing those blades and seeing that helicopter, ... it was beautiful, he said.


We saw a light in the distance, Beninato said. Wed see it go left and right, then go under the horizon. ... Then we saw it reappear ... and stay in the middle, so I knew it was getting closer. Then the light hits us, and it circled around us for about 10 minutes.


They were rescued by the Coast Guard around 3 a.m. Sunday. Hall and Moody were rescued soon afterward.


The rescue was made possible by a five-second phone call, when Hall was able to get a signal to his wife, Christina, who was in Rome.


Without that call, wed have been stuck, and no one would have known we were in danger, Beninato said. Meester had to make a decision ... and try for a cell phone signal. He made a very good decision.


Meanwhile, officials with the Jacksonville, Fla., Medical Examiners Office have still not determined how the boys died.


Seans funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Wildwood Baptist Church in Acworth. The family will receive friends from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday.


Daniels Funeral Home has charge of Clays service. Arrangements were incomplete Tuesday.


911-TRANSCRIPT EXCERPTS The following is a portion of Floyd County 911 recordings of conversations between Christina Hall, dispatchers and Coast Guard officials. Halls husband Steve led the paddling trip into the Gulf of Mexico this past weekend:


Saturday, Feb. 26 11:09 p.m.


Dispatcher: Floyd County 911


Hall: I called earlier trying to get 911 in Suwannee, Fla. Im here in Rome.


Dispatcher: Yes, maam.


Hall: And, nobody can help me. I mean, Ive got a group of people floating in canoes. Theyre just out adrift. Ive called 411 a million times. They cant get the sheriffs office, and every time I call the sheriffs office they say, If this is an emergency, call 911, and I cant call 911 in Suwannee, Fla., because Im here.


Dispatcher: OK, hold on.


Dispatcher: Maam?


Hall: Yes?


Dispatcher: We have no contact at all with Florida. ... Theyre stuck out in the middle of the ocean in a canoe?


Hall: Yes.


Dispatcher: Good grief.


Hall: And hes got a Rome cell phone, so when he dials 911 nothing happens, ... and Ive tried the Coast Guard. I cant get a number for the Coast Guard. ... Ive tried Dixie County, and the sheriffs office is closed, and they say, If this is an emergency, dial 911. See, I cant get anybody. Its shocking to me that I cant. Ive been trying for 30 minutes to get a policeman in Florida, and I cant.


Dispatcher: What are their names, and where are they? Do they know where they are? Do they have coordinates or anything?


Hall: They have some basic coordinates, yes, they do.


Dispatcher: Can you give them to me?


Hall: Their basic coordinates are, they are in between Coon Island and Cat Island and theyre in canoes. They had a motor, but the motor stopped.


Dispatcher: And who are they?


Hall: Steve Hall is the guide thats with them. ... Theres huge winds, theres big waves, and Im afraid the boats are going to capsize. Weve got to get some kind of help.


Saturday, Feb. 26 11:19 p.m.


Coast Guard: Can I help you?


Dispatcher: Hi, this is Vicki from 911 in Rome, Ga. I have a subject here that has relatives that are stranded out in the Gulf of Mexico between Coon and Cat islands, and this is the only number I could get through the operator that was a working number.


Coast Guard: Where did you say they were stranded at?


Dispatcher: Near Suwannee, Fla., I think its Dixie County and its between Coon and Cat islands. Theyre stuck out there in rowboats, and the winds and the waves are getting big, ... and the person thats out there is a Steve Hall, ... and if you could pursue that. Youre my last hope I guess.


Coast Guard: Are they on the island?


Dispatcher: No, theyre out in the water in canoes and a boat. I think maybe two canoes and a boat.


Coast Guard: OK, do you have a description of the boat or anything?


Dispatcher: No, if you could hold on, Ive got her on the other line. She might have.


Coast Guard: Sure.


Dispatcher: Hey, Ive got the Coast Guard on the line. Can you give me a description of the boat?


Hall: Yeah, theres a cataraft and then canoes.


Dispatcher: How many canoes?


Hall: Theres probably, I think there were about four canoes, but I think two of them got separated. And theyre hoping that the two that got separated made it to Cat Island.


Dispatcher: OK.


Hall: But the ones that are adrift are between Coon and Cat islands, but they said its really windy.


Dispatcher: Are they drifting out to sea or in?


Hall: They must be drifting out or else theyd have hit land somewhere. So they must be drifting out, and he said the swells are getting ...


Dispatcher: OK, Ive got them on the other line, hold on for me, OK?


Hall: Thank you


Dispatcher: Sir?


Coast Guard: Hello?


Dispatcher: She said they have a cataraft, ... and theres four canoes. Two have gotten separated from them, and they hope they made it to Cat Island. But the waves and all have gotten up. They have no motor, so they are, you know, drifting probably in the wrong direction.


Coast Guard: Four canoes and one catamaran? Shes on the other line with you?


Dispatcher: Uh-huh.


Coast Guard: And shes the one with all the information? ... Tell her Im going to call her on the other line.


Dispatcher: All right, Ill hang up. Thank you so much. The Coast Guards going to call you (Hall), OK?


Hall: OK, thank you.







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now I'm no expert but if the weather service issues a warning for paddlers...that should be a clue. "I didn't think the weather was going to take such a turn for the worse"...now what was that warning for again. Could it have been to "warn" you the weather was going to take a "turn for the worse".


Having been so flippant above it is terribly sad that 2 young people lost their lives. Hopefully the rest will be able to get over the loss and learn something from it.


How frustrating it was for Mrs. Hall to try and get them help. I thought if you dialed 911 on your cell no matter where you are it goes to the nearest 911 office.



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This was a very tragic situation. More so because it was completely avoidable. It does provide a great lesson to be learned for those organizations (in and out of scouting) that should understand and practice the safety afloat guidelines in the G2SS. From the article is seems like a number of major items were not addressed. This is just so sad.





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Some obvious mistakes -


1) No float plan. It sounds like the wife knew the basics, but what if she hadn't been available? A float plan contains information about where you are going, what craft you are taking, etc.


2) Weather! Warnings are made for a purpose. Now, I've been caught out on several campouts when tornado warnings came up. Unfortunately, they are quite commonplace around here in the late spring. But to avoid a coast guard warning to paddlers is inexcuable.


3) Buddy boats! The buddy system isn't only for individuals. Every craft should have a buddy craft. They should always keep in touch with each other.



I too am amazed at how flippant they sound. Some of their comments bother me - perhaps it was just the reporter - We waited on them, but they never caught up,, and I wish things had turned out differently. ... This has really shaken me up. Its going to be a long time before I get over this". DUH! How long will it be until the parents of those two boys get over it??? And the comments about rap music and Jerry Garcia... I just don't get it.

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I will offer this also, besides the small craft advisory and a canoe fits this description the second failure was an emergency action plan.


No I did not know that 911 would not work outside your home cell phone area. I am not sure that is true. The report says the wife in Georgia was directed to call 911 and of course she would get her local police.


He did not summon rescue until he lost flashlight contact with the wayward canoe. Also only then did the go search for that canoe.


In OSHA, the communication system that will be used to call for rescue must be verified prior to entering a hazardous space. Why was the leader only able to make one 20 second phone call? Was he out of range? Battery? Did he wait too long to summon rescue?




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This reminds me of an incident on a large lake in the midwest when I was a scout, we paddled out of a protected cove into the body of the lake and were slammed by waves, swamped in minutes. Had to be rescued by a passing skier.


Canoeing on large lakes and the sea is not for amateurs. A 20 mph wind blowing over a mile of open water can build a 3 foot wave in 30 minutes, the wave height is proportional to the wind speed, fetch(open area) and time the wind blows. Most non experts cannot move a canoe against such a wind. Very sobering incident.

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You're right - my husband and I got caught in a freak mountain storm (oxymoron, I know) canoeing on Lake Tahoe. I've also had to swim my way out of a rip tide off the SoCal coast. Most people just don't understand the power they're dealing with.


I wouldn't have gone out with a warning in effect. As one of three BSA certified lifeguards in our troop I wouldn't have allowed the group to go, either, no matter how much they didn't like me for it. I'm not one to throw my weight around, but that's exactly the kind of situation that's too scary to contemplate given the possible consequences. I feel so sorry for those families.



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