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Officials use near drowning as water safety reminder

June 25, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- Keiana Hardman was stuck in a current Monday, losing strength as she struggled to keep her head above water and to avoid being drawn into the churning water near a dam on Antietam Creek.

Then, she saw Hagerstown Fire Department Capt. Mark Cleck swimming toward her.

"I knew that I would be alive," when she saw Cleck heading for her, Keiana said Thursday morning as she stood on the bank near the spot where she struggled in the turbulent water below the dam off Memorial Boulevard where it meets Eastern Boulevard.

Keiana, 15, of Hagerstown, was on hand for a press conference at which emergency services officials used her experience to remind the public about water safety, and specifically about the dangers of dams, even small ones.

One official called such dams "drowning machines."

In the past 15 years, there have been multiple fatalities at that spot in the creek, said Mike Weller, fire safety educator for the Hagerstown Fire Department.

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In April 1998, a Frederick, Md., man who had been fishing above the dam died after jumping into the water to rescue his dog, according to newspaper accounts.

In May 2001, the body of a 33-year-old man was found near the top of the dam, according to accounts at the time.

Keiana and her friends were playing at a spot on Antietam Creek that easily is accessible from Mount Aetna Road and Eastern Boulevard. They started out planning to fish and decided to swim in the creek, Keiana said.

The teenagers eventually tried to use the dam as a water slide, and Keiana became trapped at the base of the dam.

The "boil effects" of the dam created a turbulence Keiana had to fight, Weller said.

That turbulence would be strong enough to hold a car under water, he said.

Cleck said when he arrived at the creek Monday, he saw a young man sitting on a log above the dam and Keiana in the water below the dam. Because of the depth and churning of the water, it was all Keiana could do to keep her head above water, Cleck said.

Keiana wouldn't have been able to reach for something rescuers threw to her because she was trying so hard to keep her head above water, Cleck said. The only way to save her was for someone to swim out to Keiana and take her ashore, he said.

Rescue personnel decided Cleck should go in the water because he is a strong swimmer. He had a rope fastened to him while other personnel held the rope on shore.

Cleck also has been involved in other water rescues in his capacity as a volunteer for the West End Fire and Rescue Co. in Shippensburg, Pa., he said.

The area of Antietam Creek near the dam attracts people because it is easily accessible, Weller said. Last weekend, he saw a dozen young people around the dam, he said.

Kevin Lewis, director of emergency services for Washington County, said Thursday he is concerned about water safety this summer. People are seeking entertainment closer to home, and there are more than 100 miles of Potomac River shoreline and many streams in Washington County, he said.

When people put themselves at greater risk, emergency services personnel also are at greater risk, Lewis said. At night when there's no visibility or when people are under the influence of alcohol, the risks are even worse, he said.

Keiana was in the water for what felt like 20 minutes, she said Thursday.

She said she knows how to swim and swims in the deep end of pools, but the experience Monday was scary, she said.

She has asthma, and was screaming and breathing really hard when rescuers got to her, she said.

"Learn from my mistakes," Keiana said.

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