Canal spillway concerns neighbors in Palm Beach Gardens

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- At the surface, the water is serene, tickled by the sunlight over Alternate A1A and Lighthouse Drive's spillway.  Just feet below, however, inconceivably strong currents through the spillways and locks proved deadly Thursday night. 

What unfolded is a memory neighbor Denise Scheivmer will never forget. 

"It was horrific, it was definitely a cry of desperation," she said.

Scheivmer raced over the fence behind her home to the spillway in such a panic, she didn't notice she fractured her knee in the process.

"I'm screaming back at them, 'Buddy breathe!  Take some air, breathe for him!'  They were too exhausted to do that," she said.

It was what Scheivmer, a resident of the area for twenty-two years, calls "a mother's worst nightmare."

Rescuers say 23-year-old Lance Duffett had been "winching" or "wake skating," surfing along the top of the water on the gate.  He was sucked into currents in the gate below, and was wedged into a ten-inch wide opening.  Once the gates opened, he was pushed into a churning "vortex" of a current on the other side.  The currents are too strong to swim free from without assistance, explained Division Chief Keith Bryer with Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue.

"They can't see it.  They are in the water at the most dangerous time, this is not a recreational facility, people shouldn't even be anywhere near this water," Bryer said. 

Duffett could not be saved, despite the desperate work of several first responders. "If you fall off, you're going to immediately feel that pressure, if it's even a couple of inches," explained Bryer.

Multiple fire rescue crews from the area returned to the scene Friday to discuss saving techniques in future emergencies near spillways.  Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue crews met with workers at South Florida Water Management District to learn how to improve communication and understanding of how the locks work.

Duffett's was the second drowning death in the area during the summer of 2013.  In June, a teenager died in a waterway near a shopping center near Alternate A1A.  Witnesses had seen the young man go under the water, struggling to stay afloat, and two fire rescue crew members dove into the water in an attempt to rescue him. 

Several neighbors in the area believe more signs, gates and fences need to be added to keep people from entering waterways in the area.  There are existing signs in the areas to keep people from structures around the locks.  South Florida Water Management is encouraging the public to stay out of the water, but it does not plan to add additional signs or warnings to keep people out. 

Scheivmer wants more to be done to keep people from waterways like the one behind her home.

"It is extremely dangerous, I don't understand, especially with the last death, that they haven't put up some type of warning, some type of fencing system that would actually stop anything, especially a human being from being sucked into the gates underneath," she said.


The gates are triggered remotely, and with heavier rains, Water Management says the gates must open more often and more water passes through.

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