AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Friday afternoon, the Austin Police Department recognized three lake patrol officers who helped rescue a boat Thursday that was about to go over Longhorn Dam with passengers on board.
Austin-Travis County EMS said the rescue happened near North Pleasant Valley Road in east Austin. Callers reported a boat with people on board about to go over the dam around 2:36 p.m.
ATCEMS said the boat was attached to another boat by rope. Life vests were lowered to the four passengers. ATCEMS said the boat was partially over the top of the dam at one point.
ATCEMS said the boat and passengers were finally pulled off the dam and into open water by an Austin Police Department lake patrol boat. The passengers, identified as four young women, were not hurt.
APD said the officers who helped pull the boat to safety were Lake Patrol Officers Bradley Smith, Mark Bozyk and Jesus Perez.
According to APD, the company the boat was originally rented from went to help the passengers, but the company’s boat was not strong enough to pull the boat in danger away from the dam’s edge.
That’s where the lake patrol officers came in. Smith, Bozyk and Perez responded to the scene and tied their patrol boat to the company boat and pulled both boats away from the dam and into safe waters.
Officer Smith said the passengers were “surprisingly calm.”
The Austin Fire Department and STAR Flight also responded to the scene, according to ATCEMS.
How did this happen?
ATCEMS told KXAN this particular dam doesn’t have barriers or much signage to alert boaters to not go near the dam.
“So on this particular dam, I don’t believe that there are buoys or safety chains in front of them. They pose some hazards with debris buildup and things like that,” said Joshua Todd, district commander over special operations with ATCEMS.
Officer Smith, one of the lake patrol officers that saved the boat, said there are two marked buoys the boat went past, but you need education courses to clearly identify different buoys. Inexperienced boaters haven’t had that education.
Todd said this boat was probably already too close to the dam when it started getting pulled into the suction. Couple that with the rains we’ve had recently — the water current was strong. He said there have been several motorized boats that have become stranded or disabled in the past month.
“We obviously had a bunch of rain here in Texas. So there’s water flowing through Lady Bird Lake and over the dam, and that natural current took that boat down to where it became lodged,” said Todd.
Previously, motorized boats like the one on Thursday weren’t allowed on Lady Bird Lake, according to ATCEMS.
“You got to remember that water is a pretty powerful force in nature. And even on a clear, calm day in an urban area, things can go wrong very, very quickly,” Todd explained.
The boat that nearly went over the edge was one from Austin Retro Boats. It’s a fairly new company to Lady Bird Lake. The boats are electric and only go about 5 miles per hour.
“Luckily the boats that are allowed on Lady Bird Lake are electric, and they don’t go that fast. If it was going faster and actually hit it, I would’ve assumed that it would go over,” Smith said.
It was an Austin Rowing Club boat that really became instrumental in preventing the retro boat from going over.
“In my book he’s a hero for immediately responding to protocol,” said Kevin Reinis, executive director of Austin Rowing Club.
Officer Smith agreed, saying, “he was able to steady it, to make sure it didn’t go any further, which was a huge help… he possibly prevented them from actually going over.”
Austin Rowing Club manages the boathouse where Retro Boats operates out of. They train their staff members to perform these sorts of rescues. Retro Boats and Austin Rowing Club also give renters a clear map showing where to go and where not to go on the lake.
“There’s an island, and you just turn around on the island, and you are safely away from the lake,” said Reinis. “You have more than enough room for margin of error; the current would not be an issue.”
One thing that isn’t clear is how the boaters ended up that close to the dam in the first place.
“In this particular case, I believe the boat had a mechanical issue on it,” said Todd.
Austin Rowing Club argues it was all due to human error.
“There’s no information that I have that there was any equipment issue whatsoever,” said Reinis.
Officer Smith said the passengers had been talking with each other and hadn’t realized how far they had gone before it was too late.
Nonetheless, Todd encourages inexperienced boaters to have the proper safety equipment like life jackets and have a way of contacting first responders.
Has this happened before?
Division Chief with Austin Fire Stephen Truesdell said this kind of thing has happened a few times before.
He said once a boat carrying two people went over Tom Miller Dam, and it was washed downstream to the upper end of Lady Bird Lake. Those people were able to crawl out safely.
Another time, he said visitors in a canoe went over Longhorn Dam, but that they shouldn’t have been in a canoe in the first place.
Truesdell also said it’s unknown if the passengers on the retro rental boat had life jackets, but that AFD crews lowered its life jackets, which are more robust, to the passengers just in case.