Drowning reinforces concerns for removal or repair of Dawt Mill dam
<em>A family member involved in this tragic June 25 incident has told the Times that at no time were the children in this group of people visiting Dawt Mill left unsupervised on the river, as previously reported.</em>
<em>The Springfield News-Leader reported June 29 that the Dawt Mill owner had said he would apply for permits to remove the dam. Dawt Mill manager Ron Harden told the Times Wednesday morning, "We are working with state and federal officials to see what we can do with the dam." Earlier this week, Harden stressed that all Dawt Mill resort and float guests are warned to stay away from the dam.</em>
After a 13-year-old Springfield girl drowned last week when she got stuck under the broken dam across the North Fork of the White River at Dawt Mill, everyone who was asked about the tragedy agreed that the dam in its current condition is dangerous and something must be done about it. The problem is that few steps can be taken quickly to remedy the dangerous situation due in part to regulations mandated by the federal Clean Water Act, which the Army Corps of Engineers is charged with enforcing.
One of those steps is underway this week as Missouri State Highway Patrol Water Division personnel work with Dawt Mill employees to place buoys in the river, warning floaters and swimmers away from the dangerous dam.
Still, three years after a 12-foot-long section of the dam was washed away in rain-induced flooding in 2013, some are asking why the fix didn’t start earlier.
Chloe Butcher, a student at Hickory Hills Middle School in Springfield, died Saturday after the river’s strong current apparently sucked her underwater at the break in the center of the dam. Rescuers worked frantically to find her and pull her out, but when the teenager was finally brought to shore, she was pronounced dead at 6:03 p.m. by Dawt Mill owner Dr. Ed Henegar, according to an online Missouri State Highway Patrol. The MSHP report says the drowning occurred as Chloe “was attempting to help another swimmer.”
Details of the incident vary from person to person. Dawt Mill manager Ron Harden, who was not on site when the incident happened, said employees and witnesses told him Chloe was visiting Dawt with a friend and the friend’s family.
The website dawtmill.com says the first dam on this site was built in the 1890s and then rebuilt by Alva Hodgson, who had previously built Hodgson Mill on Bryant Creek. The dam impounded a mill pond that fed the water into a mill race that powered the nearby grist mill’s turbine.
Ozark County Times archival stories say the dam was again rebuilt in 1969 after being damaged by severe flooding, and it was repaired after another flood caused damage in 1992. A photo on the dawtmill.com home page shows swimmers and canoers in the water alongside the intact dam. But in August 2013, when the Times reported that flooding caused by heavy rains had taken out a 12-foot section in the middle of the dam, a Dawt Mill spokesman told the Times, “We’re going to have to fix it again.”
In September 2013, a story published in the West Plains Daily Quill described longtime area resident Russ Cochran’s experience of being “sucked through” the broken part of the dam at Dawt Mill and feeling lucky to have survived it. “My guardian angel was with me that day,” Cochran told the Quill.
A Dawt Mill representative told the Quill at the time, “We are in the very early stages of seeing what needs to happen to make necessary repairs to the dam. ... But for right now our main concern is safety. We’re doing everything we can to keep people safe.”
<strong>‘Help! Help! Help!’</strong>
While the current is strong at the center of the river, where it rushes through the breach in the Dawt Mill dam, it is relatively placid along the east bank of the mill pond, near the resort’s take-out ramp. The V-shaped section of water in that area is a popular swimming hole, and swimmers sometimes play on the section of the dam leading into the mill race.
As Century Bank of the Ozarks employees were finishing their annual float trip on the North Fork Sunday evening, some of the employees’ children were swimming in that area and playing on the dam as the day was drawing to a close, said CBO employee Kerrie Zubrod. A short time later, some of the CBO families were in the resort’s casual Beach restaurant overlooking the dam when the drowning occurred. “The whole thing unfolded before our eyes,” said Zubrod, who added that she overheard one mother telling her children afterward that they were never to play on the dam again.
Harden said Chloe was apparently swimming in that area when she moved toward the center breech in the dam to help another child. It’s not known if that child was part of the family group Chloe was with. Harden said he was told that about the time Chloe called for help near the broken section of the dam, a 9-year-old “went through the hole in the dam and came out the other side,” and a Dawt Mill employee rescued that child at the bridge about 100 yards downstream from the dam.
The incident occurred during the height of the take-out period, Harden said, when several parties of floaters were coming off the river at the Dawt Mill ramp. One of those groups, in a six-person inflatable raft they’d rented from Dawt Mill, included Springfield resident Russell Vinson. He’s floated the North Fork several times, he told the Times Monday, and he’s familiar with the warnings Dawt Mill staffers give to customers who rent their equipment. On the bus ride to Patrick Bridge, his group’s put-in point, Vinson and his fellow floaters were told by Dawt Mill staffers, once again, to stay away from the dam. “They said it can be very dangerous, it can do this, it can do that to you. They’re very definite about telling you to stay away from the dam,” he said.
Harden said overnight customers are also warned about the dam when they check into the resort. And if someone using Dawt equipment goes through the dam, “We fine them,” he said.
As Vinson’s group was approaching the take-out ramp at Dawt Mill, “all of a sudden we heard, ‘Help! Help! Help!’” Vinson said. “Immediately, our focus went to the dam, and we could see someone, not very tall, from the shoulders up.”
Vinson said the girl calling for help was by the opening in the center of the dam. He said later it looked liked she was holding onto the dam, “but that might have been her trying to hold on to him” (the other child who was swept through the dam and rescued at the bridge).
While the floaters watched, “all of a sudden, she disappeared,” he said.
Everyone in Vinson’s raft, as well as people in the raft next to them, rushed to and below the dam to search for the girl. Vinson climbed onto a large piece of the dam that had broken off earlier and was partially submerged in the water just below the breech near the end of the east-side arm. One of his friends who had climbed onto the chunk of concrete “kept looking at this one spot,” he said. “I just had a feeling about it. So I sat down and positioned myself and reached up and underneath the dam. I pulled some sticks out, and off of a sudden I felt her hand. I probably had her hand in my grasp two or three times, but I couldn’t keep ahold of her and couldn’t see her,” he said.
Chloe didn’t grip his hand back, he said. “At least I don’t think she did.”
His friend Jim Cody joined him on the chunk of concrete. “ He wedged himself among the rocks so the current couldn’t take him, and he reached up there and got ahold of her hand. It took quite a while. But he finally got ahold of her,” Vinson said.
About that time, a MSHP trooper made it to the breech in the dam. “The water patrol made me get away. They said I was too frantic,” Vinson said. “To me, I was just trying to get to the girl.”
A single dad who raised his daughter from the time she was three months old, Vinson said he thought, “If it was my daughter I’d want someone to be doing the same thing I was doing, trying their hardest.”
Rescuers finally managed to pull Chloe from the current. “And one of the people there started CPR, but it was too late,” Vinson said.
<strong>The first step toward change</strong>
While Dawt Mill and its dam are privately owned, its owner needs a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to make changes to it or to remove it. Corps spokesperson Laurie Driver told the Times Monday that, after the dam broke, a “multi-agency meeting” was held at Dawt in September 2013. Manager Ron Harden was at the meeting along with representatives from the Corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Missouri Department of Conservation, she said.
Driver told the Times “the dam is privately owned, and the Corps has no authority to inspect, repair or remove it. We have regulatory jurisdiction over it. ... Anytime you put fill materials in the water, a permit has to be requested through us to comply with the Clean Water Act.” The Corps would then give various agencies “an opportunity to comment” on the permit application. Those other agencies might include USFW and MDC plus others interested in the project’s cultural and or historical implications, she said.
Permit application forms are available online, Driver said, and the application process usually involves a description of the project and why it’s needed, the quantity of material to be used, and drawings, photos and other information. Depending on the type of application, the Corps is usually able to respond in 60 to 120 days, said Jim Ellis, a project manager who works in the evaluation branch of the Corps’ regulatory division in the Little Rock, Arkansas, office.
One consideration is that the North Fork is home to an endangered species, the Ozark hellbender salamander. But “just because there’s an endangered species doesn’t mean the project can’t be done,” Driver says. After the Corps gathers input from the other agencies, ultimately the Corps decides whether to grant the permit and what kind of permit will be issued.
At the 2013 meeting, the Corps did not make recommendations. “What we did was inform them of what they would need to do to make repairs or to remove the dam. We said, ‘Here’s the process.’ And we know they understood the process because a little later, they applied for a permit to extend their ramp into the river, which was granted,” Driver said.
But since then, Dawt Mill has made no other permit applications, she said.
Hearts are heavy this week throughout the area as family, friends and those involved in the attempted rescue remember 13-year-old Chloe. Harden said, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, and we’re so grateful for the first responders and water patrol officers and law enforcement who worked to try and rescue her.” Vinson said he attended the candlelight vigil held Sunday in Springfield in Chloe’s memory. A celebration of life service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday, July 30, at Second Baptist Church in Springfield, with arrangements handled by Gorman-Scharph Funeral Home. A gofundme account has been set up to create a memorial fund in Chloe’s name. Contributions may be made at www.gofundme.com/2bc8w56s.
Meanwhile, area residents, inclufing Ozark County commissioners, are hoping steps will be taken as quickly as possible to remedy the dangerous situation.
“We have to …get it fixed before it causes another death,” Vinson said. “it could happen again next weekend.”
Dawt Mill dam