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Archive for Friday, September 26, 1997

S LAKE ACCIDENT PROBED

September 26, 1997

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Investigators havebegun looking into a lake incident, which left six students -- one legally blind -- and a professor in the water.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office this week was investigating a report involving a Kansas University environmental studies group thrown into Clinton Lake when a boat overturned.

One of the students who had to swim back to shore, Mary Drouin, is visually impaired and considered legally blind. And accounts of the number of life preservers on board varied from four to seven.

"I felt like my safety was jeopardized," the 46-year-old Drouin said.

A sheriff's deputy took an incident report Tuesday, one week after an aluminum boat capsized in the lake during a field ecology class, dumping lab equipment, the students and Stan Loeb, associate director of KU's environmental studies program, into the water.

The deputy has interviewed those involved and reportedly queried the KU environmental studies department as to why no report was made last week. Sheriff Loren Anderson said the matter would be turned over to the state's Wildlife and Parks Division for further investigation.

"We can determine who was there and what happened," Anderson said. "KU would designate who was in charge."

Loeb said the lab equipment sank, but the loss was meaningless when weighed against the students' safety.

"I'm super happy that no one was hurt," Loeb said Thursday, adding that this was the first field accident in the course. "I wouldn't do anything differently. It was just a bad circumstance."

Potential for trouble

The class left shore about 2 p.m. Sept. 16. A second group stayed behind to gather shore samples for a comparison study.

The group made it about 200 yards into the lake when the accident occurred. Loeb said he had decided to turn around because of the rough conditions and was slowing down when a wave hit the boat, filling it with water. Some of the occupants stood, tipping the boat over.

Drouin and two others swam to shore. The three remaining students and Loeb stayed with the boat, floating and treading water.

Jim Dietrich, who had taken his 18-foot ski boat out on the lake earlier in the day, came by the overturned, 12- or 14-foot boat about 30 minutes after the accident.

Dietrich, who took Loeb and the remaining students to shore, said the winds were whipping at 15 to 20 mph and producing white-capped waves.

"I thought it was inappropriate for them to have even been out there," Dietrich said. "I shouldn't even have been out there."

Dietrich added that he was distressed by two main things: The aluminum boat was too small and light to be carrying seven people, and he did not see an adequate number of life jackets for the fully-clothed, backpack-wearing students.

In addition, other than a few windsurfers, no one else was out on the lake, and the boat was out of view of the marina.

"I don't know what would have happened if they'd been out there another half hour," Dietrich said. "They could have potentially been in trouble."

Drouin, who also suffers from a lower-back disorder, said the accident aggravated the problem, and she had to spend a two-hour class this week on her knees. She contended Loeb was navigating the boat too fast through the choppy water.

"I'm sorry that the boat ride was rough -- we go out of our way to provide a safe experience," Loeb said. "It was not a reckless act, it was what we do in fieldwork."

The class was on the lake to retrieve deep water samples.

Loeb also said there were seven life jackets, one for each occupant. Drouin said she thought there were only four.

Simple rule

KU's safety rules stem from federal and state regulations, mainly those adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Mike Russell, director of KU's department of environment, health and safety, said this week he had not yet been informed of the accident. He said KU had no specific boating regulations in safety manuals, but state regulations would take precedence.

"You've got to have a life jacket for every person in the boat," Russell said. "It's that simple."

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