Friday, July 8, 2005
Teen drowns in storm
By BEN NELMS
The storms generated by Tropical Storm Cindy brought tragedy with them Wednesday night. Authorities said 18-old Danen I. Clarke of Pebblestump Point, Peachtree City, died trying to save a friend from the rushing flood waters at the very heart of the city.
What is usually a small stream flowing through a drainage system between City Hall and Picnic Park on its way to Lake Peachtree turned into a torrent that could not be contained.
Clarke, his father and several friends were playing in the water using rope-drawn wake boards in the tree-shaded depression between the First Presbyterian Church parking lot and Willowbend Road next to City Hall.
Clarke, a recent graduate of Fayette County High School, and his friends had been wake-skating in the rising storm waters when one of them disappeared.
Family spokesman Bob Gardner, who also participated in the search, said the group of four or five men involved in the wake-skating did not perceive there was danger present. When the unidentified young man was sucked into the four-foot-wide metal drainage pipe, Clarke went in after him and was swept into the culvert as well.
Gardner said Clarke and his friends were athletic and participated in many watersports. Clarke was described as a great swimmer who loved the water. He was out there with his friends, doing what he loved to do, Gardner said, and he may have known that he was risking his life to find his friend.
They didnt see him and they got concerned. Danen and his friends started looking for him, Gardner said painfully.
When they did, Danen apparently stepped in the same general area of the culvert that was covered with water, Gardner said. Im not sure if he dove in or was pulled in but he went in voluntarily for his friend. (The current) was obviously very strong and it pulled him under. The other young man had been pulled under previously and he came out the other side and was able to get to the shore. Danen was pulled under but apparently hit his head on the culvert and he was lodged underneath a log.
First reports had all five men being swept through the culvert, the father last. All survived except for Clarke.
Searchers scanned the area where the flood had created a whirlpool about three feet wide just above the inundated culvert, and then moved down the creek toward Lake Peachtree.
Clarkes body was found at 9:20 a.m. Friday, amid the remnants left by the rushing waters, approximately 50 yards downstream from the culvert and just past the golf cart bridge between City Hall and Picnic Park.
Though largely subsided, the depth of the stream was still four to five feet, said Peachtree City Public Information Officer Betsy Tyler.
The call came Thursday night to Fayette County 911 at 9:02 p.m. that a suspected drowning had occurred near Peachtree City Hall when someone had been sucked into a drainage culvert under Willowbend Road, Tyler said.
The location, and other low-lying areas in Peachtree City, were becoming flooded as rainwater gathered from the deluge. Nearby units of Peachtree City Fire Departments Dive and Rescue Team responded and began to search for Clarke. They joined family and friends that had already begun to search for the missing man.
Rescue efforts centered on the area between the opening of the four-foot-diameter culvert on the west side of Willowbend and continued for approximately 300 yards along the drainage ditch.
By 10 p.m. the scene along Willowbend grew more ominous, with rain pouring heavily and the parking lot at First Presbyterian Church, just yards from the culvert, becoming a lake whose bounds could not be contained. It was the second rain band to hit the city in three hours Thursday night.
As more rescue personnel poured in and with the culvert long unable to handle the flow, the waters climbed to street level and began pouring across Willowbend Road and into the drainage ditch toward Lake Peachtree. The work that began with family and friends was continued by rescuers who carried on through the night.
And though only a few hundred yards from the culvert to the lake, the volumes of rapidly moving deep water, thick mud in the ditch along with limbs and debris made the search more than difficult.
Peachtree City firefighters and dive team members worked frantically but deliberately to search the stream and the 250-acre lake. Fire Chief Stony Lohr said Thursday that teams searched the culvert and stream and the lake.
Firefighters attached a thermal imager to a ladder truck to survey the shore area of the lake.
Tyler said the citys engineering team will be evaluating the culvert. Without or without a screen covering, it was a case of too much water moving too quickly through the area for the infrastructure to handle, she said. The heavy amount of water moving through the Willowbend area mirrored the other incidents of flooding occurring throughout the city, Lohr added, including the Tinsley Mill area across Ga. Highway 54.
Speaking Friday morning, Mayor Steve Brown said Clarkes death was tragic, and one that might have been avoidable.
When you have severe weather conditions, you should use precautions and avoid outside activity in severe weather, he said. Anytime you have something thats avoidable and someone dies its a tragic circumstance. And this was one of those situations where there are certain things you shouldnt being doing in severe weather.
Also speaking Friday morning, Gardner had only praise for Clarkes character and for his familys strong religious beliefs that are currently sustaining them.
He was a great young man at school and at church. He had just finished his Eagle Scout project. He was one of the finest young men Ive ever met, just a great person and strength to this community. He was just a good kid. Hes what we all want our sons to be like. Hell be sorely missed, Gardner explained, as he struggled with the words. Danens family is very religious. They are also gathering strength from their family and friends. They are holding true to the belief that we dont just leave this world and cross over into darkness.
Around midnight Wednesday, when it became clear the search might have to extend into the daylight hours, four family members were allowed to get into one of the search boats and onto Lake Peachtree, authorities at the scene said.
But it would be nine hours before the young mans body was recovered, less than a hundred yards from where he and his friends had been skating the flood waters a few hours before.
The event was unique in Chief Lohrs memory. No one had ever drowned in such a manner in the history of the city.
Many more than a dozen fire and police personnel were involved in the dark, wet search for Clarke past midnight Thursday morning, all the while keeping an anxious eye on the weather reports.
At the same time, other units responded to numerous reports of water damage and storm-related calls for help, including a lightning strike and smoke at a store in The Avenue while the search effort was underway.
— Additional reporting by Cal Beverly.
Copyright 2004-Fayette Publishing, Inc.