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Conservation officers say they’re seeing more deaths at low head dams

EDINBURGH, Ind. -- Conservation officers are warning Hoosiers of the dangers of low head dams after a deadly weekend on waterways across the state. They said they're seeing an uptick in deaths near low head dams.

The number climbed this past week. Monday morning, conservation officers said they located the body of a missing kayaker, Timothy Wells, 29, of Indianapolis, in Big Walnut Creek in Putnam County, 600 yards downstream from a low head dam.

Monday evening, the Indianapolis Fire Department said family members notified them Lawrance Morrissey, 48, of Fishers, passed away. Morrissey was one of two kayakers crews rescued from the White River in Broad Ripple from the boil in the low head dam over the weekend.

Conservation officers said there have been seven incidents at low head dams so far this year, with four deaths. Last year, there no low head dam related deaths. The Indiana Department of Homeland Security said in the past 10 years, the state has seen more than 30 incidents at low head dams with more than 20 deaths.

"This killer will kill you, will kill your family members and everyone else that gets in this boil line," Captain Bill Browne said.

The Indiana Department of Homeland Security said more than 10 percent of drownings in Indiana are dam-related. The state ranks 10th in the nation for people who have died in low head dams.

Browne said as the water cascades over the dam, it causes a boil that will trap a person inside. The flows over the dam create strong, recirculating currents.

"It will push you back, the water coming over will push you down then you'll come up right in the middle of that boil again, take you right to the face of the dam," he said.

Browne said those on the water should stay away from low head dams, wear a life jacket, know where the dams are located, plan any trip out and if you do see someone caught, don't swim to them, but use a throw bag.

"This is a throwing rescue, a throw bag, you can make yourself one out of a milk jug, fill it half full of water, put the cap back on, tie 50 feet of rope on it," he said.

Browne said once you've thrown it, scream at the person to lay on their back and kick as you work to pull them out.

Browne said a high percentage of drowning deaths are those trying to rescue others.

"Life changing I think is the biggest thing for us and for all the families involved," Deb Brown-Nally said.

She knows the impact firsthand. Her son, Mark Nally, was with four friends on the Big Blue River in Edinburgh in June 2014. When Sarah McLevish was swept over the dam and caught in the raging water, her friends tried to rescue her. Trent Crabb and Nally were able to make it to shore. Michael Chadbourne and Jason Moran did not survive.

Nally said there's not a day that goes by her son doesn't think of Sarah, Jason and Michael.

"They just were unaware, had no idea of the danger of the dam because it had been safe to them the day before," she said.

While the blue ribbons remain near the low head dam marking the lives lost, Brown-Nally is dedicated to educating others.

"I've become a mom on a mission," Brown-Nally said.

There are more hurdles to overcome, though.

Browne said the DNR has signs designed. Though some signs are posted at dams, putting them up is difficult since much of the property near the low head dams is private. There are more than 150 low head dams across the state, but their ownership is not often known and removing the concrete is expensive.

Browne said they're working on creating an app to help people identify where low head dams are.

"The more people we can educate, the more lives were gonna save," Brown-Nally said.

The Indianapolis Fire Department is urging people to stay off rivers.

You can learn more information about low head dams here, including how to avoid them and what to do if trapped in one, though Browne cautions you are likely to drown.