Divers battle currents, barge to find boy's body

Members of the Charleston County Volunteer Rescue Squad use a sidescan sonar device in the Intracoastal Waterway on Sunday night while looking for the body of 15-year-old Jaq'Coy Garrett.

AWENDAW -- Two divers inched along the murky bottom of the Intra-coastal Waterway on Sunday night, one hand firmly gripping a line to keep the pounding current from sweeping them from their path, the other hand blindly reaching into the dark for the body of a 15-year-old boy.

Jaq'Coy Garrett of McClellanville was wading knee-deep in the water while crabbing with friends about 6 p.m. near the Buck Hall Boat Landing when a powerful current whisked the inexperienced swimmer out of the reach of two friends, neither of whom could swim, according to authorities. One of the friends threw Jaq'Coy a rope, but it was out of reach, Charleston County Sheriff's Lt. Jack Scarborough said.

Less than two hours later, officials from five departments combed the waterway looking for any trace of the boy. Divers scraped about the floor 25 feet beneath the surface. Many of them parents themselves, the rescuers battled strong currents, a changing tide and the threat of a tugboat and barge churning the water over their search area in their effort to return Jaq'Coy's body to his family.

"It hits us a little harder when there are children involved," Scarborough said. "It kind of jerks at the heart strings when you see stuff like that."

Authorities talked to the witnesses and used a buoy to mark where the boy was last seen. Trained personnel then moved slowly across the waterway using a sidescan sonar to pick up objects on the waterway's floor.

"Without them it would have pretty much been a needle in a haystack," Scarborough said.

When the divers hit the water at roughly 7:30 p.m., the bright light of a tugboat pushing the barge from Georgetown County was visible from miles away. Scarborough said the barge could have easily moved the boy's body farther down the waterway, but there was little they could do.

The tight waterway provided little room for the barge to go around, and stopping the huge, water-bound locomotive passing over the search area was likely to cause only more problems, Scarborough said.

Not wanting to rush the search and risk missing something, the divers continued along at the same methodical pace.

The divers first circled the area the boy was last seen on the chance his body didn't float far. They then moved down with the current, using the information from sonars.

The divers used a search and rescue strategy called the Jackstay search to aid them. Basically, the method uses a line 75 feet long that is held to the floor by weights on either side. Each of the lines is marked at the surface with a float. The divers moved along the line and, like a first down on a football field, moved them a few feet when they got to the end, Scarborough said.

It's exhausting, meticulous work. The divers kept inching, as did the barge.

The tugboat crew radioed ahead once they were 10 minutes away. The divers cleared the water and stood by as the barge moved past, churning the water.

The divers returned to the intracoastal and, about a half-hour later, one of the divers blindly held out a hand and found what they were looking for about 100 yards from where Jaq'Coy was last seen.

Scarborough credited the Charleston County Volunteer Rescue Squad, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Coast Guard and a member of the State Law Enforcement Division's dive team who happened to be in the area when the call came out for working together.

Meanwhile in Columbia, State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who wants to see an end to such tragedies, worked the phones Monday to build support for legislation intended to better educate children about water safety.

The first bill would require school districts to teach swimming lessons. The second piece of legislation is a resolution that does not carry the force of law. It declares May "Water Safety Awareness Month" and encourages schools to provide at least one hour of safety instruction.

Gilliard's bill on required swimming lessons has a slim-to-none chance of becoming law this late in the session, but the House could pass his resolution. He said the state cannot wait another year to act. Water safety is taught sporadically in public schools but it needs to be emphasized and provided uniformly, he said.

"I strongly feel for the most part these drownings could have been prevented. It is put upon us now as elected officials to do the right thing. We cannot stand by idly and watch people lose their lives in such a way," Gilliard said.

Nationwide, approximately 4,000 children drown each year and 12,000 more survive with a form of permanent brain damage, according to Gilliard's resolution.

Reach Andy Paras at 937-5589, aparas@postandcourier.com or on twitter at twitter.com/andyparas.