Widow Reminds Others To Use Life Jackets

Thursday, May 22nd 2008, 9:55 pm
By: News On 6

Around 70 people in Oklahoma drown or nearly drown every year.  The vast majority of those who die are not wearing a life jacket.  News On 6 anchor Lori Fullbright reports with so many people headed to area lakes this weekend, one woman wants to remind people that tragedy can strike when you least expect it.

Laurie Watts was married to her best friend for 10 years when the unthinkable happened.  Now, she is on a one-woman crusade to prevent others from losing a loved one to drowning.  She's says life jackets are a cheap and easy way to protect the most valuable thing you have:  your life.

Richard Watts was an avid fisherman, a husband, father, grandfather, brother and son.  He spent years at the lake, fishing, camping and boating.  He was the last person anyone would think would drown, but that's exactly what happened three years ago on Keystone Lake.

He was on his boat with a friend, Johnny Graves, and Johnny's 12-year-old son, Lemiah Denny.

Lemiah was the only one wearing a life jacket because he was the only one required to by law.

"There was a wind shear that came through, 70-80 miles per hour. Lake patrol said they'd never seen waves that big on that lake before," said Laurie Watts.

Lemiah was found the next day near the boat that had capsized, still wearing his jacket, but dead from hypothermia.  Richard and Johnny were found weeks later, both drowned.

"They brought the life jackets back to me, very heart-wrenching thing. Here's the life jackets, sorry we can't find your husband," said Laurie Watts.

Laurie's life has never been the same since losing her husband.

She campaigned for a law that would require people of all ages to wear life jackets while in moving boats, but didn't get very far.  So, now, she uses what she can, her voice, to warn people of the dangers that lurk beneath all that lake fun.

"It's a life changing experience and I don't want people to make this their Memorial Day holiday, to come to visit their loved one who drowned at the lake when they could've had a life jacket on," said Laurie Watts.

If you don't have a life jacket, most lakes have a loaner program.  You'll find the free life jackets near the boat dock:  borrow it, wear it and return it for the next person.  

It's especially important to play it safe this weekend because the water has been high, there's a lot of debris and the water is still chilly.