When Tyler and Sandy Trouba packed for their family’s weekend trip to Pawnee Lake, they made sure to bring life jackets for themselves and their two children, ages 10 and 4.
“We were here last week — I helped look for (the body) for 45 minutes,” Tyler Trouba said, referring to a drowning that occurred on Father’s Day.
Sandy Trouba said the incident was a “tragedy” on a usually safe lake. They drive from Gretna to Pawnee Lake nearly every week in the summer because it has less boat traffic and they have more space to themselves.
“It’s sad. … Obviously, our kids saw it,” she said. “You feel bad, but you need to learn, and this is why we have rules,” such as wearing life jackets and communicating with each other.
The most-recent drowning at Pawnee Lake, the second at the lake this month, was the third water-related incident that Lincoln Fire and Rescue has responded to recently, said Water Rescue Team Leader Mike Satorie.
Including the June 1 mishap at Pawnee Lake, there have been two boating fatalities in Nebraska this year. That's an unusually high number this early in the summer for a state that averages five per year, said Herb Angell, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Boating Law Administrator.
Eighty percent of drownings nationwide could have been prevented by wearing a life jacket, Angell said. The two recent drowning victims at Pawnee Lake were not wearing life jackets, and all four of the drownings in Nebraska last year could have been prevented with a life jacket.
State law requires life jacket use for children under 13 and for people riding personal watercraft or being towed on an inner tube or other device. There must be enough life jackets, Coast Guard-approved and readily accessible, for each passenger on board.
Angell said Game and Parks enforces these laws every day.
“Very seldom does my mouth start moving when I’m not talking about life jackets,” he said.
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His motto, “Don’t be caught dead without your life jacket,” applies to all water situations, including areas where they’re not legally required, such as beaches.
Satorie agreed, stressing that any situation can quickly escalate.
“Even if you have a kid just playing on a beach in a swimming area that you feel is safe, they should have a jacket on,” he said. “Lakes in Nebraska don’t have very clear water. If someone goes underwater and someone’s not watching, they can disappear pretty quickly.”
Game and Parks has an informal life jacket-lending program where it offers jackets to boaters who don’t have required ones. And G&P raises awareness about water safety, especially at schools.
Its strategies are no different now compared to other years, Angell said.
“I don’t think we’re hitting it any harder than we ever have, that message is out there,” he said.
He lauds efforts by citizens and private organizations, such as the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation in Lincoln, which provides life jackets at Pawnee and Branched Oak lakes. The parents of Joshua Collingsworth formed the foundation after the 2-year-old drowned in a backyard pool.
Lincoln resident Rhonda Halvorsen started collecting life jackets after the most-recent Pawnee Lake drowning. She started with two jackets, which she planned to distribute at the lake.
After sharing her plans on Facebook, she started receiving donations of money and gently-used life jackets. As of Saturday, she'd received $800 and seven used life jackets, and bought 32 new life jackets with the donated money. She plans to hand out the life jackets at Pawnee Lake on Sunday.
Sandy Trouba said she hopes making life jackets more available will help prevent further water deaths.
“Obviously, you can’t force somebody to wear them, but if they’re available — I mean, life jackets aren’t cheap,” she said.
Tyler Trouba responded, “Over a life they’re cheap.”
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