“It was pretty bad … very, very fast water,” said Burlington police chief Doug Jones, who was on-scene Saturday evening following a boating accident on the Neosho River that claimed the lives of three people near the Burlington City Dam in Coffey County.
Maribel Moran, 42, Ezra Sharp, 5, and Mason Sharp, 3, all of Shawnee, died at the scene.
Wesley Sharp, also of Shawnee, survived after being taken to Burlington Hospital, from where he has since been released.
“The water was exceptionally high,” Jones said, noting that the Corps of Engineers had not yet shut the flood gates at the John Redmond Reservoir.
“At the time, the water was 2-3 feet over the top of the dam,” he said, “but by noon Sunday, the water was just next to nothing.”
Jones also elaborated on how “there was a tremendous riptow, a boil right there at the base of the dam.”
“That’s what did all the damage,” he said. “In that boil there, the boat was just rolling like it’s in a blender.”
“What most people don’t understand is how much force flowing water has,” Jones said.
And indeed, John Redmond has been running with outflows well above normal since heavy rainfall in late May, including a flow approaching 8,000 cubic feet.
Maj. David Simonetti of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT), said that although certain details are known, “the investigation is really in its infancy.”
He noted that KDWPT is currently trying to secure witness statements, as well as forensically assess damage done to the boat involved.
In scene photos, it looks as though a significant chunk of the hull is missing.
Simonetti explained what happened as follows:
“Rivers have two currents,” he said. “There’s the obvious current and the undercurrent, and the undercurrent is what can be flowing much faster than the current you see; that’s how people usually get into trouble.”
“When you have a dam like that, you have water falling over the dam, and even if you were able to negotiate that drop, … once you get into that water below there, there’s a hydraulic.”
“I didn’t think the dam was quite that high, but it’s one heck of a drop,” Simonetti added.
His understanding was that the victims’ boat stalled, then dropped over the structure, capsizing and ejecting its passengers along the way.
Simonetti continued, saying, “when you hit that water on the other side of the dam, it sucks you under, because that’s aerated water that you can’t maintain buoyancy in.”
“Even if you’re wearing a life jacket,” he said, “it can still hold you under the water, especially if you’re not strong enough to pull yourself up.”
“It’s rough. It’s rough,” Simonetti said of the tragedy.
Few people in the world have it as rough, though, following the incident, as does Andrea Matos, Maribel Moran’s daughter, and sister to Ezra and Mason Sharp.
In an interview with WIBW, Matos said she’d received a phone call informing her of the accident, wherein the caller said simply, initially, “they couldn’t find my mom.”
“My family was very happy, they were all happy,” she told the station.
“My mom was the most outgoing and happy person I have ever met. She made everyone feel comfortable and she was able to make friends very easily. She really loved the outdoors and gardening,” Matos said.
“She loved me so much and would always tell me how proud of me she was.”
“My two brothers were just like her and were very happy kids,” Matos noted.
“My brothers loved sharing how much they loved us and how much we meant to them. They loved playing with their Hot Wheels and loved to run. They made our lives very bright,” she said.
Matos said her mother and Wesley Sharp were not married, but had been partners for eight years and loved one another very much.
“My brothers loved playing outdoors in the backyard with water and they liked racing,” Matos said. “They all three liked going to the park and to the lake with Wesley.”
The family is currently in the process of making funeral arrangements.