Life Jackets Worn, Nobody Mourns

Fort Worth District, USACE
Published July 1, 2024
Dana Gage interview

Kennedi Walker, left, a local reporter, interviews Dana Gage at Lewisville Lake during a water safety event prior to the Memorial Day weekend in 2023. Gage created the Fort Worth based non-profit group, LV Project, in memory of her son Connor who drowned in a preventable accident while at a birthday party in 2012. The LV project donates life vests to local lakes and stresses water safety and the importance of wearing a life vest across the metroplex.

Life jacket station

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Park Rangers Hank Manson, Fort Worth District, and Zack Stafford, from Galveston District, refill a loaner life jacket station at Benbrook Lake, in preparation for the upcoming 4th of July visitors to Mustang Park, Fort Worth, Texas, June 27, 2024.

On a beautiful, warm Texan day at Lewisville Lake, Jennifer Lawson, a natural resources specialist from the Army Corps of Engineers, heard about two males traveling at a high rate of speed on a personal watercraft, who lost control and tumbled into the lake.

“I was working at Westlake Park, and we received a call for possible drowning of two individuals,” Lawson said.

Lawson has seen this scenario before in her seven years as a park ranger at Lewisville Lake, one of 25 lakes and reservoirs managed by the Fort Worth District in Texas.

She feared for the worst as national statistics show that adult males drown at around five times the rate of women and children.

It’s a reoccurring nightmare of happy-go-lucky lake visitors, many that come from nearby big cities, many not having spent much time around deep water, overtaxing their boating and swimming skills.

Army Corps of Engineers water safety experts estimate that 90 percent of the USACE-operated recreation areas are within 50 miles of metropolitan areas, offering diverse outdoor activities for all ages close to home.

The water-related fatality statistics from 2019 through 2023 at Fort Worth District’s 25 lakes are somber: 92 percent of all victims weren’t wearing a life jacket, 89 percent were male, 85 percent age 18 or older, and 12 percent of these deaths involved alcohol.

Thankfully on this day, the Lewisville Fire Chief met Lawson, along with several of her fellow rangers, at the shoreline as the rangers were providing medical care to the two individuals that had fallen off the watercraft. Both survived but were pretty shaken up.

“These individuals emphatically told us that they were so glad they had life jackets on, and felt without the vests, they would not have made it,” Lawson said. “Both knew how to swim, but very quickly realized the importance of wearing life jackets after being catapulted into the water at a high rate of speed.”

When this drama unfolded there were hundreds of people on the shoreline.

Lawson, sensing an opportunity to educate members of the public, brought out some donated life jackets that she had just received the day before from a local non-profit.

The life jackets that Lawson was able to pass out were provided to the Corps of Engineers from the LV Project, a local non-profit formed by Dana Gage to honor the memory of her son, Connor, who died in a preventable drowning while at a birthday party.

Connor was no stranger to lakes, and the Gage family had a rule at their lake house: “toe in / vest on,” meaning if your toe is in the water, your vest should be on, especially while swimming. They understood that lakes are murky, deep, and unpredictable. Very different than pools.

“Connor died at age 15, just as he was starting his freshman year of high school, and just as he was turning the corner from boyhood to manhood,” Gage said in a 2022 interview.

Connor wasn’t wearing a life jacket the day he died at a friend’s birthday party.

As Gage puts it, “I assumed my son would be protected with a life vest, without confirming with the host family. That was the worst mistake of my life, one that I live with every day.”

That tragic event acted as a catalyst for change.

"As I began to acclimate to this new life lens, one fact became indisputably clear: Connor should not have died on August 31, 2012,” Gage stated at the same interview. “It was so preventable, so unnecessary, so wrong.”

Everyone knew this wasn’t a freak accident, this was 100% preventable.

That’s when Gage decided to do something about it. She quit her job in corporate America and started the LV Project, a Fort Worth-based non-profit, whose goal is to spread the word about water safety and educate the public on the importance of wearing a life jacket.

When contacted for this article, Gage said, “Most people don’t understand that it’s mostly teens and young adults who are drowning in lakes. Just like Connor, the majority happen while swimming versus boating. People falsely assume good swimmers can’t drown, unfortunately people are wrong.”

Over the recent Memorial Day weekend, three young men, ages 17, 18, and 19, died from drowning while swimming in three different Corps of Engineers managed lakes, none were wearing life jackets.

Since that day in 2012, Gage and the team at LV Project, have donated hundreds of life vests and jackets to local lakes and loan-out stations around the metroplex, with the Corps of Engineers the recipient of at least 250 life vests and jackets.

“We just received about 50 more life vests from them which would have cost us over $3000,” said Lawson. “Thankfully I passed out many of them the day of the watercraft incident, which was perfect timing.”

Lawson, along with fellow Park Ranger Ami Watkins from Grapevine Lake, and Lyndy Black, a Recreation Specialist at the Fort Worth District, were manning a Corps of Engineers informational booth at the annual Honor Connor 5K & Smile Mile.

“We were set up right next to the registration table and handed out over 1500 water safety promotional items during the event,” Black said. “Every person that walked into the event passed our table and we attempted to hand out a goodie bag. I think it’s safe to say between the three of us we had around 50 conversations that emphasized water safety.”

Many recreators expresses gratitude for the team answering questions about Corps of Engineers managed lakes and the best way to find camping information through

Parents enjoyed the carabiners and whistles that could be attached to life jackets while children enjoyed the water safety frisbee which helped sharpen skills for throwing a real lifesaving ring.

With more than 900 participants, along with hundreds of spectators, the most popular item given out was a water safety towel emblazoned with the "Life Jackets Worn, Nobody Mourns" logo.

Both Lawson and Watkins expressed appreciation to the LV Project's continuous commitment to promoting water safety and the vital donations of life jackets for the free public loaner stations.

Wearing a life jacket is not a 100 percent guarantee that the wearer won’t drown, especially in storm surges, debris fields and fast flowing rivers or bodies of water. But, for recreators on the large bodies of water at Corps of Engineers’ lakes, it is a simple but truly effective slogan: “Life Jackets Worn, Nobody Mourns."

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is one of the nation’s leading providers of outdoor recreation with over 400 lake and river projects in 43 states, and more than 250 million visits per year. Check out the website below to find valuable tips and resources that could save your life or the life of someone you care about. For more information about the LV Project, go to: