Authorities are urging greater water safety following the July 4 drowning of a Madison, Nebraska, teenager in Lake Yankton.
The lake is located on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota near Gavins Point Dam and is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Multiple agencies, including divers from Yankton, Mitchell and Sioux Falls units, responded to the call. Search and rescue efforts included deploying boats equipped with side-scan sonar and the deployment of drones.
The first 911 calls came at 3:22 p.m., and the body was found around 8:35 p.m. that evening.
The drowning was accidental, with the 16-year-old boy unable to resurface after falling off an inflatable flotation device, according to Sgt. Jeff Jones with the Nebraska Games and Parks Commission.
“As far as our investigation, it was just an individual who tried to stand up on a flotation pool toy and he lost his balance,” Jones told the Press & Dakotan. “He didn’t know how to swim, and he didn’t realize how deep the water in Lake Yankton really is.”
Many people greatly underestimate Lake Yankton’s depth and the dangers that go with it, such as sudden drop-off areas, Jones said.
“You’ve got to understand that Lake Yankton used to be a channel of the Missouri River. That’s why the state line runs through Lake Yankton,” he said. “In areas where you’re ice fishing, it stands 10 to 12 feet deep. In the section where this young man drowned, it was 7 feet deep.”
The victim has been identified as 16-year-old Pablo Domingo of Madison, Nebraska. Authorities didn’t release his name, but the Resseguie Funeral Home of Madison confirmed the teenager’s identity for the Press & Dakotan.
He was born March 25, 2005, in Guatemala, and his family moved to Madison when he was 11 years old, according to his obituary. He was a sophomore at Madison (Nebraska) High School where he played basketball and ran cross country.
Graveside services were held Friday at Crown Hill Cemetery in Madison.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission released details of the drowning in a press release.
At 3:22 p.m. July 4, the Cedar County (Nebraska) Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call of a juvenile male drowning at the lake. Five Nebraska conservation officers responded, along with a Cedar County Sheriff’s deputy, U.S. Corps of Engineers park rangers and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks conservation officers.
Authorities recovered the body after searching about five hours, which is quick for that type of search, Jones said.
“The vegetation was anywhere from 2-3 feet thick, so we weren’t able to use our side-scan deep enough,” he said. “We also couldn’t see all the way (through the water) with our drones and the helicopter. We also have drags, but the vegetation hampered it. But if you have a recovery within 3-5 hours, you’re doing (well). Otherwise, it can take days.”
Authorities determined the boy had tried to float across the lake from the swimming beach on a recreational flotation device, according to the news release. Witnesses reported, when the boy tried to stand on the device, he lost his balance, fell off and did not resurface. A personal flotation device (life jacket) was not present.
“When we were walking out there (in Lake Yankton), it got waist deep and then there was a pretty good drop-off out there,” Jones said. “You need to stay within the swimming beach areas. A pool toy is not necessarily a vessel for floating across the lake.”
When crossing a body of deeper water, a recreationist should use a craft that the Coast Guard would define as a vessel, such as a kayak, canoe or paddle board, Jones said.
“It should be more than a recreational flotation device or toy,” he said. “Those things tend to deflate, and they don’t have buoyancy built into them.”
Jones credited the quick emergency calls from witnesses as allowing immediate response for the rescue attempt. Cedar County instantly received multiple 911 calls, and Yankton County may have also received calls, he added.
The various agencies — federal, state, county and local — have developed a coordinated effort in emergency responses, Jones said. The preparedness was evident in the immediate and widespread response to the call on a holiday weekend, he said.
“This is typically the teamwork that we have up there (at the Missouri River) between Nebraska and South Dakota. We have that cooperation on any drowning up there along the border waters, including Lake Yankton,” he said. “They know what equipment each of them has and what they can do. They’re also good with the drone.”
In addition to the Yankton search and rescue unit, the Sioux Falls and Mitchell (Davison County) dive units assisted with the operation, Jones said. The additional manpower provided the Yankton unit with relief and would have allowed the search to continue until about 10 p.m., if needed, he said.
BOATING LAW REMINDERS
As a reminder, Jones noted the requirements for life jacket usage.
“In South Dakota and (Nebraska), we enforce the life jacket regulations. I can’t stress enough the importance of wearing a life jacket,” he said. “At that location (around Lake Yankton), the Corps of Engineers has a life jacket loaner program right there where a person can grab a life jacket and replace it when they’re done.”
In South Dakota, every person on board a personal water craft must wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times. Children younger than age 7 must wear a PFD while on any vessel operating at greater than “slow, no wake speed” unless below deck or in an enclosed cabin.
In Nebraska, every vessel (except sailboards) must carry one U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type I, II, III, or V life jacket of suitable size for each person on board. Each vessel (except personal watercraft canoes, kayaks and sailboards) must carry one U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type IV throwable device.
Anyone operating a motorboat or personal watercraft in Nebraska must be at least 14 years of age. Children under age 13 and anybody on a personal watercraft are required by law to wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD.
At the time of last week’s drowning, authorities were already on the alert for water incidents during the busy July 4 holiday weekend, Jones said.
Alcohol and drugs were not part of the Lake Yankton drowning, but authorities were conducting a campaign against Boating Under the Influence (BUI), he added.
“That was an Operation Dry Water weekend,” he said. “We were out heavily looking for boaters who were under the influence. You need to stay safe when you’re consuming alcohol around.”
Alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. South Dakota law prohibits anyone from boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The state blood alcohol content legal limit for operating a vessel under the influence is .08.
Authorities recommend a designated driver when boaters are drinking.
The Lake Yankton drowning was tragic, and officials want to prevent any more losses of life or serious injuries, Jones said.
“We have a lot of summer left, and there are a lot of people out on the water,” he said. “Be safe and wear your life jacket.”
Nebraska conservation officers were assisted with the Lake Yankton recovery efforts July 4 by Cedar County Sheriff’s Office, Nebraska State Patrol, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, Yankton County EMS (Emergency Medical Services), Yankton County Sheriff’s Office, Yankton Search and Rescue, Minnehaha County Search and Rescue Dive Team, Davison County Search and Rescue Dive Team, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cedar County Emergency Management, Yankton County Emergency Management and Wing Air Rescue.
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