After a child drowned, this Columbus mom made a free life jacket station near dangerous rapids

The recent drowning of a 6-year-old boy in the Chattahoochee River has motivated a mother of four other children to provide a free community service to help prevent another a death.

Two days after Columbus first responders recovered the boy’s body down river, Tina Peavey and family members erected a “life jacket station” at Waveshaper Island along the Chattathoochee Riverwalk in downtown Columbus, overlooking the rocks that form the final rapids of RushSouth Whitewater Park, the world’s longest urban rafting course at 2.5 miles.

“I couldn’t sleep for more than two days,” Peavey, 41, told the Ledger-Enquirer. “I knew something had to be done.”

Peavey and her three oldest children (ages 21, 17 and 11) scrambled to buy the life jackets and put up the station — made out of wood and anchored by cement in two 5-gallon buckets — in time for Independence Day.

“Fourth of a July is a big water time for all of us,” Peavey said while holding her 3-year-old, “and it was just very important that we have life jackets to try to save another child. … I couldn’t take knowing that these kids would be down here. They would be on these rocks. We can’t force them to wear them, but we can at least provide them for free.”

The life jacket station is a few yards away from a sign that informs visitors about a Columbus ordinance that says city law requires the use of a flotation device to be in the river.

Donations totaling around $650 combined with some of her money enabled her to buy 57 child-size life jackets and nine adult-size jackets for $5.88 each, Peavey said. She has placed some on the Phenix City side of the river and plans to place more in other locations.

Peavey has seen life jacket stations at Lake Harding and Goat Rock. She hopes for one to be established at Lake Oliver as well. She also wants to find an appropriate place for a collection box so folks can donate new or used life jackets. To donate money to the case, she said, find her on Facebook.

“Really, the best thing I can tell people to do is please just buy a life jacket and bring it to any local boat ramp or down here (at Waveshaper Island),” she said.

Peavey said a staff member representing Whitewater Express, the official outfitter for the whitewater course, expressed concern that the life jackets she has provided aren’t safe to wear in the rapids because they aren’t the proper classification.

“Somebody took a life jacket and went into the rapids,” Peavey said. “I’m not encouraging that at all. … If a kid is on these rocks and they slip into the water, we can find a kid that has a life jacket.”

Columbus Fire and EMS Marshal Ricky Shores told the L-E, “Any access to a PFD (personal flotation device) is better than none” but anyone who goes on those rocks or in the river should wear a life jacket designed for whitewater.

“You don’t use a small car to haul a heavy trailer,” he said. “. . . Just a general life jacket is not appropriate for areas around swift water.”

Because drowning can happen faster than too many folks think.

“You’ve got about 60 seconds to get somebody in that water,” Shores said. “. . . The difference between an Olympic swimmer and a child is maybe 40 seconds. You’re not going to overpower that river.”

An average of four to five bodies are pulled out of that part of the Chattahoochee per year, he said.

“That river has a Ph.D. in drowning people,” he said.

Peavey did say she will add a sign warning that the life jackets aren’t safe for swimming in the rapids, just accident prevention.

“When our tourists are down here visiting,” she said, “a lot of times I think they’re not going to go buy one for a few minutes, but if we actually have them down here to provide them for free, somebody may actually use it.”

It only takes a split second of inattention to spark a tragedy, Peavey noted.

“It isn’t necessarily that the parents aren’t watching their children,” she said. “They’re little kids. They get away from you before you know it, and this water is very unforgiving.”

Amanda Warren is a Columbus mother who already appreciates what Peavey has done. She and her 10-year-old daughter, Caylee, decided to visit the rapids after eating lunch downtown. Warren not only insisted on Caylee wearing one of the life jackets Peavey provided, but she put one on herself to set a good example.

“It was just spur-of-the moment because we were in the area,” Warren said, “so I wouldn’t have had a life jacket with me. … I’m more comfortable now bringing her here.”

The best friend of her son-in-law drowned on the Phenix City side of the river three years ago, Warren said.

“He was a very good swimmer,” she said. “But with these rapids, it doesn’t matter how well you can swim. . . . Before this last drowning, we would come out and stand on the rocks with no life jacket.”

Peavey acknowledged she didn’t seek a permit from the city to erect the life jacket station.

“Saving our children is way more important,” she said.

Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson praised Peavey for having “such a big heart and wanting to immediately do something to try to make a difference. From that respect, I commend them.”

The mayor told the L-E that six citizens have called his office asking how they can donate life jackets to the cause. But he is convening a task force that will meet next week to “get the lay of the land from a legal perspective, because you’re talking about a state waterway and putting a privately-placed sign on a public property. So we just need to find out what our capabilities are.”

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.