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Drowning Risk Rising Following Three More Deaths

Judy Fahys
This year's big snowmelt has raised the hazard posed by Wasatch Mountain rivers and lakes. The death toll rose Monday to six. This warning sign is at Parley's Creek, where a woman died trying to save her dogs in April.

The death toll on Utah’s swollen rivers jumped to six on Monday after a West Jordan woman and a Sandy man died trying to rescue the woman’s young daughter, who’d tumbled into the Provo River.

The drownings follow the deaths earlier this spring of two northern Utah boys and a woman in Salt Lake County. And runoff dangers are expected to continue for weeks.

Sgt. Spencer Cannon, spokesman for the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, has dealt with around two dozen drownings during his career.

“Once was one too many,” he says.

Then, on Monday, Cannon faced three more as watched rescuers pull in the bodies of Brenda DeDios and Sean Thayne from the Provo River. The two had tried to save 4-year-old London DeDios, whose body was recovered Tuesday.

Cannon says he understands the fascination with fast-moving water and the impulse to rescue someone swept up in it, but he lumps drowning hazards together with DUI and speeding accidents.

“Something that is so absolutely, 100 percent preventable – the tragedy and the senselessness of it almost sickens me,” he said.

Cannon says parents should know the danger of fast-moving water and protect children from that danger.

But the hazard is even difficult for adults to grasp. He says meltwater from the mountains is about 45 degrees -- cold enough to literally take your breath away in an instant.

“You might have two or three minutes before you lose your ability to function properly,” he said. “You might have 15 minutes before you start getting loopy and unable to even make yourself able to respond to mental commands.”

Brian McInerney, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service, sometimes uses an elephant metaphor to explain the force of rushing water in confined spaces. For the Provo on Monday, it would be like having five elephants roll by each second.

And, based on the weather service’s forecast this week, the hazard is expected to remain high for awhile. Temperatures are warming up and runoff is expected to pick up and peak in mid-June.

Both McInerney and Cannon advise staying away from the fast-moving water and keeping a close watch on children and pets around it.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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