Six teenagers from two families drowned Monday in Shreveport, La.'s Red River while trying to save a friend who had slid into deeper waters.
Those who drowned were the Warners: Takeitha, 13; and her brothers, JaMarcus, 14; and JaTavious, 17. Their cousin, Dekendrix Warner, 15, was rescued. The others killed were the Stewarts: Litrelle, 18; LaDarius, 17; and Latevin, 15.
"I didn't see my daughter, but I could see my two sons saying, 'Help me, please,'" said Maude Warner, mother of Takeitha, JaMarcus and JaTavious.
The teenagers had been in a popular recreational area where sandbars give way to 20-foot depths. Neither the teenagers nor the adults watching from the riverbank could swim.
"They had one life jacket here," said Cindy Chadwick, a spokeswoman for the Caddo Parish Sheriff's Office. "As you can imagine, everybody started yelling for help. Nobody could swim."
Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death for people younger than 19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Black children drown at a rate more than three times that of white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The teenagers who drowned Monday were black.
Dekendrix Warner was wading close to the shore when he slipped on a slick, clay surface and fell into deeper water. The other teens rushed to help him and were overcome, authorities said.
The bodies have been recovered, Shreveport Assistant Fire Chief Fred Sanders said.
"According to the divers," Shreveport Fire Chief Brian Crawford said, "there was about 12 to 15 feet of water that slowly graded off from ankle depth to about three feet. It's very slippery and so if you start hitting that bank and you start slipping down that bank, it's very hard to find traction."
"If you don't have a swimming capability, you could find yourself slipping down that angle all the way to the 28 feet at the bottom of the river," he said.
Marilyn Robinson, a friend of the families, told the Times of Shreveport that she watched helplessly as the victims went under. She said a large group of family and friends, including about 20 children, were at the sandbar to barbecue. She said they were familiar with the water.
"None of us could swim," she said. "They were yelling, 'Help me, help me. Somebody please help me.' It was nothing I could do but watch them drown, one by one."
"It's devastating," Sanders said. "To my knowledge, the city has never experienced an incident of this magnitude."
"You can imagine watching your child drowned and not being able to do anything," Crawford said.
While 40 percent of white children were found to have low or no swimming ability, the same was true for nearly 70 percent of black children, according to a recent survey by USA Swimming, the governing body of competitive swimming in the United States.
Latino children also lag behind in their swimming levels, with 58 percent at low or no swimming ability.
Experts cite several possible explanations why blacks show less of a proclivity for swimming.
For one thing, black children with parents who themselves do not know how to swim are less likely to know or to be encouraged to learn how.