The circular motion of water flowing over a dam and swirling in front of it was a risk a group of teens didn’t understand when they tried to help a friend.
As water comes down the dam, it pushes down toward the ground and creates circulating motions about 6 to 10 feet from the dam, Indiana Department of Natural Resources Officer Bill Browne said.
The circulating section in front of a low-head dam, such as the Big Blue River dam in Edinburgh, will pull a log, person or boat toward the dam wall and then the water falling from upstream pushes it down under the surface.
The water in the river is higher than usual due to recent storms, so the water is deeper, and the dangerous current reaches wider.
After one teen went over the edge of the dam Friday into the circulating area called a boil — because the water appears to be boiling — her four friends also went over to try to save her. The force of the rotating water was so strong the teens were lucky any of them escaped, Browne said. Several years ago, the suction killed a conservation officer when he got caught in the pull.
“I don’t believe they understood the danger they were getting into with the low-head dam,” Browne said.
Four of the teens were found, and one was still missing Friday afternoon. Two were in the hospital in critical condition, and two were uninjured.
“That’s the miraculous part, that they were able to get out,” Browne said.
Due to heavy rain this week, the water level in the river was about 5 feet higher than usual, covering a tiny sandy island that residents fish from, said Wade Watson, building commissioner for the town of Edinburgh.
The rain made the water deeper and the current stronger, said Ashley Jessie, who works at a nearby bait and tackle shop.
Shop owner Robert Jessie estimated the water might be 10 to 12 feet deep in the deepest parts and about 4 feet deep near the shoreline.
The higher water made the current so strong it would be difficult to stand, said Christopher Lloyd, an area resident who helped rescue two of the teens.
“The current takes your feet out from under you,” he said.
Rainfall in neighboring counties flows off thousands of acres into streams that drain into the Big Blue River, Watson said. Increased water volume results in a faster current, he said.
A low-head dam sits in the river bed, and water flows over the top of it. The water at the boil line in front of the dam gets sucked back toward the dam wall and then forced down again, Browne said. A boil is fast moving and difficult to pull free from, he said.
The more water there is, the wider the boil line. Rescuers who cross the bubbling line get pulled into the swirl, as well, Browne said.
Blue’s Canoe Livery owner Jeff Blue kept his business closed for about three days due to how high the water is on the river.
He has owned the canoe and kayak rental company for 32 years and has rescued hundreds of people who have, for example, flipped canoes or gotten caught on branches in the water. He doesn’t open his business when the water level is high and would need the water to drop 2 or 3 feet for him to reopen this week, he said.
“Any kind of activity in front of a dam like that, trying to go over it, is just extremely dangerous,” Blue said.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office asked Blue and his son, Matt Blue, to help with the search. They searched for about an hour and didn’t see any sign of the missing teen.
The area where the teens were swimming isn’t a common area for swimmers to go, residents said.
Ashley Jessie swims and fishes in the river with her two children, 11 and 8 years old, every year.
But in about 10 years, she’s never seen anyone swimming above the dam.
“We’re down here in the gravel. You can see islands when the water level is lower,” Jessie said. “I’ve never seen anyone swim up there.”