Staff with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District at Whitney Lake rescued two fishermen who had been stranded below the Whitney Dam in the Brazos River during a planned water release from the dam.
On the afternoon of April 19, 2022, at 3:30pm, Powerhouse Superintendent Abraham Phillips called Park Ranger Shauna Sadoski to inform her that the dam was releasing water and there were two fishermen about 100 yards downstream of the boat launch in the river, with water levels rising quickly.
“Water was about knee high on the individuals and the current was getting stronger,” said Whitney Lake Lead Ranger John Thibodeaux. “Ranger Sadoski grabbed Ranger Matthew Jones and they went to the river down the hill from our office to assess the situation and see if they could guide the two men out of the river.”
Upon arrival, Rangers Sadoski and Jones shouted to the fishermen from the shoreline with the hopes of obtaining their phone number so the lake staff would be better equipped to communicate and talk the men through safely returning to the shoreline. Summer Ranger Cara Niemietz and Ranger Verlon Baize made contact via phone and headed to the boat ramp on the opposite side of the river.
“At this point, Rangers Arianna Jacinto, Jones, and I were hooking up the Corps patrol boat to drive across the dam to the boat ramp,” continued Lead Ranger Thibodeaux. “While rangers were starting rescue operations, Phillips and Senior Electrician Dan Smith were tossing flotation devices into the river from the powerhouse to try and get something to the stranded individuals before they were washed downstream.”
At 3:40pm, while the boat was on the way, Niemietz was on the phone with the fishermen helping to keep them calm. She was instructing them it was best to stay where they were as it was the highest point in that area of the river and if they moved toward the shoreline, the river would be deeper with a much stronger current.
“Water level was about waist to stomach deep at this point; she reassured them a boat was on its way,” said Lead Ranger Thibodeaux.
At 3:45 Rangers Thibodeaux, Jones and Jacinto, with the help of Civil Engineering Technician Noah Bleything driving the truck, launched the boat to recover the stranded individuals. When rangers launched the boat, the water was chest high and in just seconds, by the time they arrived at the individuals, the water was just under their armpits. Rangers Jones and Jacinto helped the men into the boat, helped them put on life jackets, and comforted them on the way back to the boat ramp.
By 3:55, everyone was back on dry land. No one sustained any injuries and the quick and decisive actions of the lake staff allowed them to rescue the individuals just in time to keep them from being washed downstream.
“The only casualties of the day were some fishing poles and gear that was abandoned by the individuals,” said Lead Ranger Thibodeaux. “It was a great team effort that went as smoothly as it could. Everyone performed their tasks, communicated well and our teamwork ensured a positive outcome to a potentially life-threatening situation.”
The incident ended with Ranger Sadoski discussing water safety with the individuals. She explained how every dam is different, making sure they heed warning signs, know all the restrictions before setting out and the importance of wearing a life jacket when in or around water.
“The main contributing factor in this incident was the individual’s failures to observed posted warning signs,” explained Lead Ranger Thibodeaux. “They passed three warning and danger signs and were even parked directly in front of a bright red sign that states ‘Danger, Water Subject to Sudden Rise and Turbulence, No Swimming or Wading.’ Their failure to heed posted restrictions and warnings could have cost them more than just some fishing gear that day.”
Lead Ranger Thibodeaux said this is not the first time this has happened.
“We find people in this area all the time, we write warnings and citations, and patrol frequently,” he said. “In fact, it is standard operating procedure to drive by this area every time a Ranger leaves or returns to the office. We have the area heavily signed to try and warn people before these situations happen.”
The Corps of Engineers primary concern is public safety. Warning signs are there for a reason. The intentions of the signs are not to ruin fun, they are there because there is a real safety concern that the public needs to be aware of. Every dam is different and taking a few minutes to understand the warnings and restrictions could save your life. With any water-based activity, wearing a life jacket in and around the water will greatly increase your chances of survival.