Five teenagers were pulled from the ice cold Tenn-Tom waterway around midnight Saturday night after rescue crews scrambled to find the young men clinging to a nearly submerged Jon boat in an inlet just North of Nashville Ferry Landing.
Around 10:26pm, E-911 dispatched Lowndes County Sheriff’s Deputies and District 3 Volunteers to the Tenn-Tombigbee Waterway south of Columbus after a call came in from a young man who was clinging to a tree branch, and had said their boat was taking on water in the Arkansas Slew area of the river, and that his four friends were all in the frigid water.
The airwaves filled with chatter as emergency responders tried to narrow down exactly where the young men were located. Deputies Toby Rickert, Eric Granderson, Mary Huggins, Kevin Brown and Chad Waltman raced to the southern Edge of Lowndes County, constantly communicating with E-911 and District 3 volunteers to try and devise a rescue plan. Several suggestions were made of locals who may have boats that could be launched quickly to assist in the rescue, either with a watercraft- or directions. [Arkansas Slew is not necessarily the most common name for the area, many skippers refer to the spot as Hairston Bend. I was more than impressed by the knowledge of the area exhibited over the airwaves that night. I can assume every owner f every parcel of land on the East bank of the river probably received a call in the frantic first 30 minutes. –CK]
Around 10:39pm, two BMH-GT ambulance crews, deputies and District 3 personnel arrived at the Nashville Ferry boat landing and scrambled to find locals with a boat that could be launched into the water. Emergency responders fanned out, knocking on doors in hopes of finding a boat. Volunteers found one man who said he knew the river, and that Arkansas Slew was about eight minutes north of the landing, near Hairston Bend.
As emergency personnel were in search of a civilian boat, E-911 operators dispatched the Columbus Fire Department to head towards the scene with their two water rescue boats. Firefighters picked up the CFD’s double-stack trailer at Station#2 on MLK and headed south with both 16ft aluminum boats in tow.
Emergency responders made the decision to move the staging area to the Hairston Bend Hunt Club at 10:47pm, an area about 3 minutes north of Arkansas Slew. District 3 volunteers set up at different check points en route to the hunt club, one by the dragstrip to escort the Columbus Firefighters, and another at the front gate to the club. (The actual hunt club is located about a mile and a half down a dirt road, and requires some navigation skills.)
Radio reception was extremely weak for rescue crews staged at Nashville Ferry Landing, and word of the new staging area had not yet been received when two young men pulled up in a boat to see what all the commotion was about. Colton Bailey offered his vessel in the effort, and Deputy Toby Rickert and a District 3 volunteer hopped aboard and headed north on the river at about 10:55pm. [About this time, not knowing the status of the stranded teenagers, a barge rolled down the river, and some pontificated that it could have caused the other ship to capsize. This turned out not to be the case- CK]
The ambulance crew finally received instructions to change the staging area to Hairston Bend at 11:02pm, and both trucks quickly exited and headed north. Columbus Fire and Rescue crews followed District 3 volunteers down the winding road and loaded both rescue boats into the water. Sheriff’s deputies and ambulance crews made their way down the road shortly after the boats launched and began to relay information back to E-911 headquarters.
Around 11:31pm, the boat that had launched from Nashville Ferry arrived at the southern end of Arkansas Slew and began to search for the missing boys. According to the National Weather Service, the temperature at that time was approximately 32 degrees. The first Columbus Fire and Rescue boat, carrying former District 3 volunteer Chris Taylor along with CFD firefighters Jeff Edmonson and Brian Smith, entered the Slew at the north end. Minutes later, the second CFD rescue boat, carrying retired Battalion Chief Ricky Graves and CFD engineers Scott Swain and Brian Smith entered the south end of the slew just behind the civilian craft from Nashville Ferry. . [Scott Swain is the CFD Dive Team leader- CK]
The young man who called 911 saw the search lights from one of the vessels and fired several rounds from a .22 rifle in the air in hopes it would narrow down the location. The first CFD boat (Talyor, Edmonson & Smith) managed to navigate the various tree stumps slyly hiding just beneath the surface and pull up next to the stranded boys. The second rescue boat and the civilian craft were blocked by a beaver dam. The young men were discovered just north of a beaver dam around 11:45pm, with the 12 ft Jon boat about 80% submerged in the water. [One of the CFD rescue boats allegedly snagged one of the beavers that the boys had shot, causing the 40 horsepower engine to briefly stall. It quickly became untangled after a few more pulls –CK]
One victim was still in the boat, and two more were chest deep in the water holding another young man who had somewhat succumbed to the elements. The fifth man, presumed to be the caller, was near the shore still clinging to the tree. Rescue workers said although the boys were only about 80yds from shore, and that the water was around 5ft deep where they wrecked, it can be assumed that the dark night sky and subfreezing temperature kept them from attempting to leave the scene. [Although I was not able to deduce the position or face of each young man, the names of the boys are believed to be as follows: Paul Scott Johnson, Matthew Dowdy, and Jeremy, Josh and Christopher Davidson- CK]
The teenagers told rescue workers they had been hunting Beavers from their boat when it became snagged on a stump of some sort, and they began to rock the boat back and forth in an effort to free it. The stern of the boat began to quickly take on water, and they were left marooned. (Differing accounts have the boat with a hole in the hull of the boat) The men were pulled onto the CFD rescue boat and, after a rendezvous with the second CFD boat midstream, headed back to the boat slip at the Hairston Bend Hunt Club.
The first young man exited the vessel at 12:00am sharp with five rifles in tow, seeming unaffected by the ordeal- as he was wearing full-size chest waders. The other four men were taken one by one from the boat, wrapped in towels and escorted up the steep boat slip to the waiting ambulances. [All four of the soaking wet teens made it up the incline mostly under their own power-quite a feat considering spending the better part of an hour in the river. The young men were reported to have not been wearing life jackets –CK]
The water rescue teams were welcomed at the dock by a throng of waiting emergency responders including several District 3 volunteers, CFD Battalion Chief Martin Andrews, Sheriff’s deputies and several members of the Hairston Bend Hunt Club who had assisted in the rescue by opening the gate and helping with navigation of the camp and surrounding areas. The young men were stabilized and rushed to BMH-GT in good condition.
Local leaders from the Columbus Fire Department, Lowndes County District 3 Volunteers, BMH-GT Paramedics and Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department praised the amazing teamwork that the rescue showed. Many of the rescue workers that spoke with The Packet had special praise for retired CFD BC Ricky Graves and former District 3 volunteer Chris Taylor, noting their knowledge of the river played a vital role in the effort.
Graves himself said he’s not quite ready to abandon retirement just yet: “All these boys did a great job- they are a good bunch. They go after it- that’s for sure” Graves said.
Lowndes County Sheriff’s spokesman Greg Wright told The Packet: “We couldn’t be prouder of the coordinated response. A special thanks to all the civilians that helped in the rescue. It was a great moment for all involved.”0