Shreveport, La. — DeKendrix Warner was splashing around in the waist-high waters of the Red River with his cousins and friends, trying to escape the oppressive Louisiana heat, when he stepped off a slippery ledge — and was plunged into water 25-feet deep.
As the 15-year-old kicked and flailed, one cousin rushed to help — and found himself plummeting down the severe drop-off. Then another.
In all, six teenagers tried to save DeKendrix — and each other — but none of them could swim. Their relatives, who can’t swim either, looked on helplessly as the teens screamed out for help. Six vanished and drowned Monday; DeKendrix was rescued by a bystander.
“I stepped and I started drowning,” the boy told The Associated Press Tuesday, speaking in a low voice outside his inner-city Shreveport home, a one-story white clapboard structure with peeling green trim and an unkempt yard.
It had started out as a typical summer family get-together — a large group of relatives and friends, including about 20 children, gathered on a sandy shore near the river’s bank for an afternoon of swimming and barbecue.
They didn’t even have time to set up the grill before tragedy struck.
“It’s hard when you can’t save your kids,” said Maude Warner, whose 13-year-old daughter Takeitha and sons 14-year-old JaMarcus and 17-year-old JaTavious were among those who drowned.
“It’s hard when you just see your kids drowning and you can’t save them,” she told KTBS TV.
The other victims were three brothers: 18-year-old Litrelle Stewart, 17-year-old LaDairus and 15-year-old Latevin.
The area where the drownings occurred is near a public park, but it’s not a designated recreational or swimming area and there are no lifeguards on duty. The spot is often frequented by swimmers and fishermen, who must walk through woods along a path to reach the river. The city had just dug a trench to limit access to it.
“The river is a dangerous place. It’s no place to even put your foot in if you don’t know how to swim,” said Shreveport Fire Chief Brian Crawford.
There was only one life jacket nearby and it was thrown to the victims, but none of them could reach it.
The tragedy highlights an unsettling statistic among African-Americans like the teens who died: 69 percent of black children have little or no swimming ability, compared to 41.8 percent of white children, according to a study released last spring by the sports governing body USA Swimming.
And African-Americans drown at a rate 20 percent higher than whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For decades, segregation limited the access of black people to public and private pools and the disparity continues because many poor and working class children still have limited access to pools or instruction.
Monday’s tragedy “confirms what we are finding — this continuing cycle of people not knowing how to swim and their children not knowing how to swim and still being around water,” said Sue Anderson, USA Swimming’s Director of Programs and Services.
Parental fear and lack of parental encouragement were the top two reasons children and parents gave for not swimming, Anderson said, adding that fear trumped any financial limitations in the study.
“Adults seem to pass their fear of water onto their children,” she said. “There seems to be a culture that says, ‘It’s a scary environment, don’t go there.’”
Marilyn Robinson, a friend of the families, was among the adults who watched helplessly Monday as the victims went under.
“None of us could swim,” Robinson told The Shreveport Times. “They were yelling ‘Help me, help me! Somebody please help me!’ It was nothing I could do but watch them drown one by one.”