I value live hands on experiential education. Therefore, I take my daughter on field trips galore. However, this past one taught us more than we ever bargained for.
I met Ed Williams at Alabama’s 300th Anniversary of Frontier Days at Ft. Toulouse Ft. Jackson in Wetumpka this past fall. While my daughter was playing the part of a Creek Indian girl to enlighten thousands of school children her age, I inquired more about Ed’s historic Keel Boat called the Aux Arc. Conversation evolved and Ed took my interest seriously. He extended the invitation for my daughter and me to join them on their next live excursion down the White River in Arkansas.
Well the time finally came. We were, two of the five females making up 15 total crew people. Lilly, the 20 year old woman, made it her mission to make sure my daughter had a good time. I am forever grateful. The entire crew were the right kind of people for the mood swing, “I won’t listen to my mother” characteristics of the common tween girl, but Lilly was the ideal age and gender for her to look up to feel comfortable with and to rely on.
Most of the trip my daughter ensured that she was at the opposite end of where I was on the Keel boat unless she was looking to swipe my phone in order to sneak in some games to appease her boredom. She had just made that appeal that I refused, while I struggled to complete my duty of rowing. Something was changing within the water that seemed to make every stroke tougher than ever.
We had just change crew shifts when it became apparent that an imminent crash into a displaced tree in the middle of the river was upon us. All did what they could to prevent it, but the current had picked up enough that all efforts were to no avail. The hull of the Arc slammed into a strong branch that punctured a dinner plate sized crack that was taking in water quickly.
I immediately passed out the life jackets to the adults nearby (the two kids were already in them) and then made my way back into the cabin to grab my wallet. I had driven a rental car from Alabama to join this excursion in Arkansas. I knew it was a long way back without, drivers license, credit cards, and cash. The rest could go down to the bottom of the river.
The first attempt was to bail and to direct immediately to shore, but another surprise awaited. Whether it was a sandbank, another tree, or rock I don’t know but the arc violently rolled over. Thankfully, William grabbed my screaming daughter’s hair to free her from getting pinned under, pulled her into the cabin, and pushed her out the starboard door of the cabin into the freezing cold water immediately behind me.
Whether it was the current, or my lack of breath from the shock of cold water, I drifted too far away to be able to reach her. Thankfully, Lilly was able to paddle to her and stayed with her until I could too.
My daughter screamed the whole time. Panic had over taken her. I heard it and tried to keep it together. All my water safety instruction was kicking in, but I couldn’t do much about it. I knew panic has no ability to reason. I wrote about it in
I trusted her to the life jacket, I was in no condition to help her. I could barely breathe from the shock of the cold water and my heart raced out of control.
Thankfully, Lilly was able to handle the physical conditions better than me and applied her water safety rescue knowledge by swimming over to try to calm her while I had to roll onto my back to float for several very long minutes before I could catch my breath and start helping. But it was tough, knowing that I couldn’t help my daughter right now. I needed “to put on my air mask first” as they instruct for airline safety. Lilly even had to remind me to float feet first instead of head first. I just wasn’t fully with it myself.
I talked to her as I was able and encouraged her to relax and calm down. Until I swam to her she just couldn’t. She remained hysterical and was inconsolable. I just prayed she wasn’t making it worse for the 13 others in the water.
Thoughts raced through my head like, it’s a good thing you gave the car rental keys to the park ranger at Jacksonport State Park. I wonder if the credit cards will still work. Do I have enough cash if not? Did my phone stay in my pocket? Then I was able to breath well enough to swim to her and help Lilly kick her to shore.
Larry scrambled out a second earlier and was able to give us a hand crawling in the mud up the bank out of the water. I pulled out my phone it worked. I dialed 911, but just couldn’t answer their questions. I handed Larry the phone. Thank God he patiently waited through the poor signal for what seemed like an endless call.
I wrapped my arms around my daughter to keep her warm. The living history wool jacket kept me warmer than I would have ever thought. So did my not so time period accurate corduroy pants.
Others pulled together and started a fire while the rest went to help those that still needed help crawling up the bank. The barn nearby was just too far to attempt to walk. I was grateful I paid that ridiculous amount for that new phone that did prove waterproof.
I was confident that help would be coming soon, but my daughter still worried. She finally sat down by herself in front of the fire and shared later that’s when she reached out to God and felt his closeness.
Oil Trough’s First Responders, the Newark Fire Department, and the Independence County Sheriff’s Department’s Dive Team arrived shortly. We slid our way back down the north side of the river bank to their boats for them to ferry us across to the south side where warm ambulances awaited. They transported us to the community center where they provided warm blankets, a shower, dry clothes, and warm pizza.
Folks started to report their losses, many of which were their wallets. One in particular ruminated over and over about how mad he was at himself for dropping his satchel with wallet. Of course all were appreciative that all were ok, but the grief over the stuff losses started to pour in.
One of our losses was a bag of essential oils that I use to keep my self well from an otherwise bad history of chronic sinusitis, migraines, and asthma. I assured my daughter that we would be ok and that they could be replaced. I even sermonized while I drove that we ought not put our trust in great resources before God. It is Him we are to trust only.
Then as she fell fast asleep I struggled to breath and panic struck me that my oils were out of reach and I must make it through the night without them and drive 3 states over to get home to secure more.
It is five days later. Ed, some of the crew, and those volunteer emergency crews mentioned earlier have since returned to the site of disaster, towed the keel boat to shore, and recovered the bulk of the items formerly dismissed as gone forever. So the losses amounted to much less than any anticipated. One commented that more patience was needed about the stuff. To me, that sounds like guilt and shame. We all did the best we could and responded the way we did. There’s no need for regret, guilt, or shame.
So what did we learn through this? First, panic does impede one’s ability to respond. I didn’t really like experiencing this from my only child, but the truth of it remains. She’s a great swimmer and problem solver, but could do nothing but further threaten the safety of the rest of us until we could calm her down. She lamented this later. I assured her that it wasn’t her fault. What happened to her as the cabin violently rolled to pin her into the water beneath it was a serious matter. She was processing that the life jacket in that instant could have hurt her by forcing her up in the water to be smacked and pinned by the boat making it impossible for her to dive under it to get away from it. She had to work through it and yelling it out hysterically in the water was her means to do so.
Each have their own way to work through crisis. Most of us kept it quiet and focused on working together. But the truth is we might have needed to scream like my daughter. One bravely shared that her expression helped him to embrace what he felt while the swift current carried him along.
Secondly, we all express fear, anxiety, and panic differently from one another. There is no “one size one fits all” description of what it looks like. Because of this, we may not easily identify the emotion and handle it properly. I began to panic when congestion impeded my ability to breathe and sleep at my friends. But, I didn’t fully recognize this until later the next day.
Thirdly, there are responses that help and those that hinder. Some are quick to quote glib responses like, “It could have been worse.” “It’s just stuff.” “Be a man.” “You survived.” “You look fine to me.” While these might have some truth to them it would be better to ask, “Do you want to talk about it?” and then patiently and respectfully listen.
Refrain from super imposing your emotional reactions upon the sufferers. You can make it worse and magnify the trauma if you do. Or you could annoy them and discourage from processing the magnitude of what happened.
Don’t be indifferent. Moving forward as if nothing happened is equally troubling and problematic. Cracking jokes and making light can insult and cut deeply. So what then is appropriate? Be empathetic not indifferent or sympathetic.
That means acknowledging what happened without pity. Pity weakens. Empathy feels the pain and empowers one to deal with it. Allow the individuals involved in the crisis to express their emotions however they need and to tell their story when they’re ready too. Acknowledge the validity of all that they share. Let them make light of it and crack jokes when they’re ready to and not before.
I’m so grateful for Oil Trough’s First Responders, the Newark Fire Department, and the Independence County Sheriff’s Department’s Dive Team how they helped and for Ed’s crew. They set the tone to help make this a trauma that could be healed quickly for me and my daughter.
For more information on the keel boat living history experience and inspiration visit one of the crew’s blog about his other times rowing with the Aux Arc at