LT searches are challenging
By LESLEE BASSMAN, LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
Search and recovery operations are difficult in most lakes but Lake Travis adds its own set of challenges. Case in point is this summer season where the popular lake has had five swimmers reported missing, and so far three bodies have been recovered.
The most recent presumed accidental drowning on Lake Travis happened on July 28. Luke Fashaw, 36 of San Antonio, was swimming and had gone under water and not resurfaced near Devil’s Hollow, said Kristen Dark, Travis County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson.
According to witnesses, Fashaw was swimming with friends near an anchored pontoon boat. When last seen, he appeared to be swimming normally, Dark said.
The incident was reported around 3:30 p.m. Rescue efforts were unsuccessful so just after 4 p.m., the call became a recovery mission. As the TCSO dive team was being assembled, a civilian deep sea diver, who was in the area, geared up and dove into the water where the man was last seen. The diver was able to find Fashaw’s body from an area 50-feet deep, Dark said.
Fashaw was pronounced dead at 4:20 p.m. An investigation into the cause of his death is ongoing. Evidence indicates he likely died of accidental drowning, Dark added.
TCSO has 10 divers and two supervisors. With all of their equipment, each diver “is worth about $10,000 (each)” when he or she enters the water, said Sergeant Greg Lawson, a member of the TCSO lake patrol and dive team.
Sonar systems are also used by TCSO and other departments in recovery efforts.
Lawson said that even though local law enforcement divers have an extended range and can operate for 20 minutes at 150 feet, they are not assured of recovering a missing person within the lake.
“Twenty minutes in a dark room where you can’t see more than six feet — we do our best,” he said. “If you were to equate our search doing that, it would look like Swiss cheese. We look for a little bit and then we surface.”
Beneath Lake Travis
“You cannot underestimate the dangers (of Lake Travis),” Dark said. “Being a good swimmer isn’t enough to save you in a crisis.”
The issue with Lake Travis is the waterway is really “a flooded canyon with steep drop-offs and very deep water,” she added.
Besides having trees and groves underneath its surface, the bottom of Lake Travis contains construction equipment, including a 110 foot-long barge sunk in the 1940s, Lawson said.
“What a lot of people don’t realize when you look at the lake is this is a huge construction area, right out in front of what it (was) when they built the dam,” Lawson said.
“Up by Hippie Hollow (Park), is an actual limestone quarry. They actually got lime out of there and ground it in a shaker plant. There was a cable car system that went from there and carried the lime all the way over to the dam. And then they would make cement out of that,” Lawson said.
The murky water and varying lake depths, even up to 200 feet, add to the challenge of a rescue or recovery effort, he said.
“For us, probably the most challenging thing that we have out here is a boat underway and somebody falling off of it,” Lawson said.
When a boat is moving and somebody falls off, it is almost impossible to figure out where that person went unless somebody throws something in the water that is going to reach the bottom and provide some sort of buoyancy, he said.
2018 Lake Travis cases
In addition to Fashaw’s case on July 28, there have been four other cases of missing swimmers since early May, according to Dark.
Manuel Salas, 53 of Elgin, was reported missing on May 5 in an area of Lake Travis near Mansfield Dam Park. Rachel Kathleen Scott, 25 of Round Rock, was reported missing between Starnes Island and Volente Beach on May 19. Both are still missing.
Diego Humberto Cerda-Acosta, 30 of Austin, was reported missing in the water near Bob Wentz Park on May 27. His body was recovered the next morning.
Ricardo Sierra Martinez, 27 of Mexico, was reported missing in the water near Bob Wentz Park on June 10. His body was recovered two days later on June 12.