Heroic efforts by a teenager

Published 8:08 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Early morning on Friday, June 2, 1972, it was foggy below Lay Dam where Jerry James Burnett, 16, and his father, Luby Burnett, chose to fish.

Mr. Burnett was holding on to the ledge; Jerry was in the rear near the motor. Suddenly, the turbines came on, wrenching Mr. Burnett’s grip from the ledge, and the boat was swamped in the powerful, swirling water from the turbine discharge.

Mr. Burnett was rescued while clinging to a rock; his son’s body was recovered Sunday morning by the Rescue Squad, one-half mile downstream.

I have known Jackie Rasberry, 18 at the time, all her life, and her reaction to this tragedy didn’t surprise me. Her grandmother woke Jackie, telling her that there had been a drowning below the dam. The family had a boat rental business, and their boat was involved.

Jackie first treated Mr. Burnett with warm blankets as he was telling her about his son. Jackie called the Sheriff’s Department, and they in turn called me and the Rescue Squad. Jackie immediately jumped in her boat alone and ran it all the way across the river in the fog, where she could barely see—all this in that treacherous water below the dam.

She said there was a chance if she could get the operator, and now seemed to be the time to reveal one of her secrets! The Cruiser, like everyone else, knew that the completion of the dam that raised the water level had been finished for a couple of years, leaving three or four rectangular holes just big enough for a brave inspector—but with the turbines not running! Jackie said, “I knew that I could get into the inspection port over on the Coosa side easier, even though it meant running the length of the dam in the dark!”

If you are not familiar with Lay Dam, you may not be excited at this point. She ran about one-half mile in the dark, ran into a barricade at the other end, and crawled under it to be staring into the eyes of the power plant operator! You just have to guess which one was the most startled. Then she had to tell him what happened and asked him to turn off the turbines!

Unfortunately, all these efforts did not save the young man’s life, but Jackie put her life in danger and spent the next day directing the Rescue Squad into some areas that they might not have known about. Through my chain of command, I recommended Jackie for The National Marine Safety Award, for “going above and beyond” in this act of bravery.

I am often asked what single law or rule has done more to save lives. There is no question. The next year after this tragedy, this site, Lay Dam, was chosen to run a test below the dam. With the cooperation of Alabama Power Company, we were able to have actual photos showing what happens when a boat is caught in the turbine discharge. Thus, a regulation was enacted to require everyone to wear a life preserver at all times within 1,500 feet below the dam.

As usual, I was able to find a little humor after Jackie’s interview. Someone asked, “How did you know that you could get through that opening and where it would lead you?”

“I used it to hide from the game warden.” The smile left my face as she added, “and Mr. Bill!” Whoa!