Two fathers jumped in to save a drowning child. Only one survived. But both came out heroes.
Every time he thinks about the man's still, virtually lifeless body floating in the water -- and this distressingly awful image has popped into his head over and over since that afternoon on the Catawba River two Saturdays ago -- Michael Byers is overcome with grief.
Start an Emergency & Disaster Management degree at American Military University.
“It --” he stops to compose himself. “It bothers --” he pauses again, unsuccessful in his effort to fight back tears.
“It bothers me, because I couldn't help him. ... I'm glad the baby was all right. But that sticks with me, seeing him face-down,” he says, as his voice continues to shake. “I still ain't been able to get over that yet.”
By any measure, the 66-year-old father of six was a hero on Oct. 3: Byers risked drowning himself as he fought the coursing current -- which had intensified after the Cowans Ford dam was opened while he was fishing -- to save a 2-year-old boy who had fallen off the boat ramp beneath Highway 73 near Huntersville.
At the same time, the result was tragic: D'Angelo Jenkins of Rock Hill, S.C., who had gone in after the boy first, was overcome by the water and drifted away as Byers struggled to get the toddler to safety.
Witnesses say Jenkins was face-down when he was pulled from the river, he never regained consciousness, and he died five days later, a few minutes after his family took him off life support. He was 34.
Like Byers, Jenkins was a father of six.
Like Byers, Jenkins was at the river that day sharing his love of fishing with young children.
And like Byers, those most familiar with what happened on Oct. 3 say, Jenkins was absolutely a hero.
'They're drowning! You gotta help us!'
Andy Cooper was ready to spend a couple of hours relaxing on the river as he made the left turn onto the dirt road down to the boat ramp, with his 15-year-old son Jacob in the passenger seat and their kayaks and fishing gear in the bed of his truck.
But as soon as he pulled into the parking lot, he says he saw a woman with a look of terror in her eyes wildly waving her arms and screaming as she ran toward them. “They're drowning! They're drowning!” she cried, gesturing back toward two figures -- one large and one small -- splashing around in the water near the edge of the boat ramp.
A regular at that spot because of its quick and easy kayak access, the lack of hustle and bustle, and fish that liked to bite, the 53-year-old Huntersville resident had always wished for a way to check online to see the schedule for dam openings. They didn't love being there when the current was strong, because the fishing wasn't nearly as good.
If it went up while they were there, he and Jacob would typically try to wait it out by positioning their kayaks just behind Cowans Ford Island, which provided a shield from the rush of water.
All this is to say that Andy Cooper knew the river well, and as the woman shrieked “You gotta help us!,” he intuited by how the people in the water were moving that the current was strong. That the dam was open.
Cooper gunned it for the boat ramp.
He burst out of the truck without taking the key from the ignition or closing the door, and within a matter of seconds, the Coopers were racing to unstrap the kayaks, the father telling the son (a stronger kayaker) that once he was on the craft and out in the water he was to throw a life preserver to anyone struggling as soon as he got close.
A few seconds later, Andy Cooper says, his son was shoving off.
At that same moment, though, the little boy who had been in the water was wading onto the shore. And in the next moment, the other person who had been in distress -- Byers -- was in a couple feet of water, on his knees, breathing heavily, but safe.
“He was shaking his head. He was just distraught,” Andy Cooper says. “So I gave him a hand and I'm like, 'Dude, you're OK, man. You're on the shore and you got him out, man. You're fine. The boy, I saw him walk off. He's fine.'”
But Byers was practically inconsolable. It was clear that he didn't think everything was fine.
Then he looked up at Cooper and, between gasps for air, croaked: “No. There's another guy still in the water.”
At first, a quiet family fishing trip
Michael Byers wasn't even supposed to be there.
Originally, he had intended to drive up from their home near the center of Charlotte with his girlfriend Loretta Madonia, 41, and their two children -- Makayla, 9, and Michael Jr., 7 -- to fish next to McGuire Nuclear Station off 73, just east of Cowans Ford Dam. He anticipated a bountiful catch: Because of the warm, highly oxygenated water that serves as an incubator for fish, the area is known as a “hot hole” and this time of year can teem with stripers, largemouth and spotted bass.
When he pulled into the entrance to the access road that Saturday, though, he was met with a “Closed” sign.
So Byers went to his backup plan, which was to check out a new spot: the shoreline next to a tucked-away boat ramp, on the other side of the river, just over half a mile downstream from the massive dam that created Lake Norman.
They arrived to find the place empty, and put lines into the water shortly before 4 p.m., Byers about 20 feet upriver from the boat launch, Madonia and the kids about 20 feet down from it.
Maybe 15 minutes later, Byers says he heard the whistle signaling the opening of a floodgate.
Shortly after that, another vehicle rolled down into the lot. A couple with two kids got out with fishing gear, setting up right on the boat launch between Byers and his family.
At that point, the water was visibly starting to rise, and getting close to lapping at Michael Jr.'s tackle box, which had been left on the boat ramp. Byers says went over to retrieve it and struck up a conversation with the man who had just arrived -- Jenkins.
As he stood with his girlfriend and her children, Jenkins told Byers it was their first time there, too. They briefly traded fish stories, Byers pulling out his cellphone to show Jenkins a photo of a six-pound catfish and a four-pound bass he'd caught recently.
After a few minutes, they exchanged “good lucks” and “have funs,” then Byers returned to his spot.
Meanwhile, Byers says, the water continued rising.
Madonia recalls making note of the river becoming more turbulent: “It seemed like it was all right near the side. But in the middle you would see these big -- like, you know how a hurricane looks? Or a tornado? It makes that big round circle? Swells or something. I guess that's what you would call 'em. It was like a line of 'em just going down the river after the dam opened up.”
Then came the screams.
A fighting for their lives in the water
“Help! Help! Help my baby!” the woman with Jenkins cried out.
Her younger child, a 2-year-old, had slipped off the edge of the concrete boat ramp and immediately was caught in the current. Without hesitating, Jenkins leaped into the river after the boy, but he got swept up by the fast-moving water as well -- and it appeared to Byers that the man wasn't able to swim.
So Byers, a former Marine, charged into the Catawba after both of them.
“He managed to get to the baby just as I jumped in,” Byers says. “He did get ahold of the child. It was for a brief moment. But because he couldn't swim, he was going down and the baby was going down. So I grabbed the baby. And just as I grabbed the baby, I felt him touch me, but when I turned to look the current had already grabbed ahold of him and was sweeping him down the river.”
Byers says he knew the child had been swallowing water and his instincts told him he had to get him to shore as quickly as possible. Worried about where the current might take them, he summoned all of his strength to fight against it, using one hand to stroke and the other to hold the boy while making sure his head stayed above water.
He felt a wave of panic when he got close to the boat launch yet still couldn't touch the bottom, and made it to safety on only adrenaline and fumes.
“As soon as Loretta and our son had grabbed the baby,” Byers says, “I turned around to look to see if maybe I could help him (Jenkins) -- but he was down the river face down in the water.”
Then Byers collapsed onto the ground, completely exhausted. It took him several minutes to find his breath.
Between gasps for air, he sobbed.
By the time 15-year-old Jacob Cooper reached Jenkins by kayak and got him onto dry land, with the help of his father and Madonia, the man's brain had been without oxygen for too long.
Jenkins died five days later -- at 11:54 a.m. on Oct. 8, says his mother, Kysia Lewis -- a few minutes after hospital staff took him off the machines that were keeping him alive.
Byers, who didn't know whether the man had survived or not until hearing about his fate from a reporter, broke down again when he heard the news, saying only: "If nothing else, make sure that people know that that man gave his life to save that baby.”
As it turns out, Jenkins will wind up saving more people than he ever could have imagined.
'That's just the type of person he was'
D'Angelo Jenkins was born at MUSC Health University Medical Center in Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 26, 1986.
Since Lewis was just 15 when she had him, they “practically grew up together, because I was still young myself,” she says. Her own mother did much of the child-rearing while Lewis was learning how to be a parent.
The oldest of nine children, Jenkins would grow up to have a big family himself and was “an awesome dad,” Lewis says, to his six kids: daughter Azaria, 15; daughter Tatianna, 11; daughter Tayana, 7; son Elijah, 8; daughter Kayleah, 2; and son D'Angelo Jr., also 2. (On the day of the incident at the river, he was with his girlfriend and her two children.)
He was working as a contractor at Spectrum -- installing cable, internet and phone service -- and making plans to start a business that centered around designing T-shirts and hats.
Lewis says she's confused by reports of what happened because, according to her, Jenkins knew how to swim “very well.” She recalls him venturing way out into the water when they used to go to the beaches near their former home in Georgia, and says she's seen him diving into the deep end of a swimming pool and coming out of the water in the shallow end.
But she doesn't want what happened in the water to define her son.
She'd rather it be memories like this:
“When he was living in Virginia and we were in Hinesville, Georgia, he drove down for my 37th birthday. When he walked in the house, he walked in with a bunch of bags of groceries. He had collard greens and steak, macaroni and cheese -- all the fixins for it -- and he went in the kitchen and made one plate of food for my birthday. When he finished cooking and I ate my food, he got on the road and went back to Virginia that night. So he drove just to make me a birthday dinner,” Lewis recalls, laughing.
“That's just the type of person he was.”
He was also exactly the type of person, she says, who would go into a roaring river after a helpless little boy.
“I mean, I hate that I had to lose my son for this, but I would not have expected him to do anything else,” Lewis says. “He's a father. Even if it wasn't (his girlfriend's) child, if it was a stranger's child, he would have done the same thing. ... If he had to do it again and he knew he was gonna not make it, I believe he would still jump out there and try to save a life.”
There's more: According to LifeShare Carolinas, Jenkins was able to donate a number of different types of tissues, including veins, bones, tendons, ligaments and skin. A spokesperson for LifeShare says that, in general terms, one tissue donor has the potential to help dozens, and in some cases, hundreds of people.
And while organ donation is much more highly publicized, tissue donors are considered to be lifesavers, too.
“Someone who has bones shattered from an accident may have no use of their limbs without a tissue graft,” says Kate McCullough of LifeShare. “Donated skin can be used to close the open wounds of a burn, which can prevent infection and save the patient's life. Someone who can't walk because of a knee injury would consider the gift of mobility to be lifesaving.”
In other words, when D'Angelo Jenkins jumped into the river, he was on his way to saving lives.
To being known by his loved ones, forever, as a hero.
This article is written by Théoden Janes from The Charlotte Observer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.