AUSTIN (KXAN) — KXAN Anchor Tom Miller and Senior Science Reporter Eric Henrikson partnered in February to create the documentary “The Wake” after hearing anecdotal stories about unrecovered bodies in Lake Travis, and how the human-made lake’s creation left orchards, buildings and construction sites underwater.
After talking with the Travis County Sheriff Office’s senior public information officer, we learned she had personally documented the year-by-year numbers.
That was what we needed to help turn these stories into a factual documentary.
Victims of Lake Travis
Our team spent weeks working to get in touch with family members of some of the most recent victims. Once that initial contact was made, all agreed to be interviewed for the documentary.
The three family members each independently expressed their hope that sharing these stories could help save someone else from dying.
We traveled as far as Dallas to speak with one of the family members who happened to be visiting from Kansas for a family graduation.
However, most of our time was spent at Lake Travis. Of the 16 different shoots we went on to conduct interviews and shoot video, 12 took place on the lake, including many on boats.
To help verify reports of underwater hazards, we worked with an expert diver, Robert Weiss.
Weiss had participated in multiple drowning recoveries and was able to show us hazards, including buildings and full-grown trees, underwater.
We also had data showing roughly a quarter of the deaths on Lake Travis happened in an area known as Devil’s Cove, or on so-called “party barges.”
To document what was happening here, we got a drone’s perspective of just how many boats hit the water on busy weekends, spoke with boat captains about safety measures and rode along with law enforcement as they looked for hazardous activity.
Trouble beneath the wakes
The lake’s history dates back to the creation of the Lower Colorado River Authority in the 1930s. By the start of the ’40s, the Mansfield Dam that you see today was built.
To understand the impact that had on the region, the construction process and the newfound access to water recreation, we talked with an LCRA historian.
We also wanted to get better insight into the response when a 911 call comes in for help. That involved riding along with three different sets of first responders.
We learned an Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services dive team will respond first, jumping into the water to try to bring the victim out alive. If they’re unable to do that within 20 minutes, the Travis County Sheriff’s dive team will respond and use scuba divers to try and recover the body.
Lastly, we looked at the safety measures in place. All the government agencies we spoke with stressed they’ve never seen a person die who was wearing a life jacket.
However, all the victims’ families said the agencies should be doing more to warn people about the dangers that lurk beneath Lake Travis.
“The Wake: Secrets of Lake Travis” premieres Monday, May 29th on KXAN.com. You can watch it on KXAN at 4:30pm and The CW Austin at 7:00am and 9:30pm.