Family tragedy leads to loaner life jacket program on SC lake

ccope@thestate.comJuly 12, 2013 

— In most cases, drownings could be prevented if people would wear life jackets, said a South Carolina man who lost his son and grandson during a 2010 storm on Stockton Lake in Missouri.

Craig Keese’s son, Brian Keese, and his 8-year-old grandson, Nathan Keese, were on a camping and fishing trip about an hour from where they lived when the storm came.

Authorities found their boat upside down 2 miles across the lake, with their life jackets on board.

The bodies were found weeks after the storm.

After the accident, Craig Keese and his family began loaner life jacket programs in Missouri and South Carolina – where their family members live – to increase availability and awareness about life jackets. They partner with local groups to buy and supply the jackets and the bulletin board-style stations where they hang.

Lake Wateree in the Midlands recently installed stations equipped with loaner life jackets at four locations: Wateree Creek, Taylor Creek, June Creek and Colonel Creek.

The Lake Wateree stations have about a dozen life jackets each, mostly in children’s sizes, but there are a few that fit adults.

The bright orange life jackets are the kind most people have on their boats to abide by the Department of Natural Resources regulations, said Rick Noble, board member of the Wateree Home Owners Association of Fairfield County.

The association opted to use the orange life jackets because if they bought decorative life jackets then people might not be as willing to return them, he said.

“They aren’t very fashionable, but they work,” Noble said.

The boards serve as a reminder for people to wear life jackets and also have a diagram showing how to properly wear them.

The boards are aimed at prevention, said Bett Williams, director of communications for Children’s Trust of South Carolina, a partner for the project.

People might not need to borrow a life jacket from the board, Williams said, but perhaps they will read the board’s message and realize that their children do not float and put the life jackets they already own on the kids.

Duke Energy manages Lake Wateree and has 11 boards at three different lakes the company manages, said Lisa Hoffmann, a Duke Energy spokeswoman.

“The long-term vision is to have these life jacket loaner boards at every one of the access areas at all the lakes we manage,” Hoffmann said.

The loaner boards at Wateree also were sponsored by Lake Wateree Presbyterian Church and Lake Wateree Baptist Church. It cost about $3,500 to set up all four boards, stock them with life jackets and have a replacement set of life jackets, Noble said.

The boards might keep other families from experiencing a loss like the Keese family.

“It is preventable,” Craig Keese said. “Put them on. Wear them. Period.”

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

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