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Death at Joe Wheeler park
Latest drowning victim was 14-year-old Decatur honor student

By Evan Belanger
ebelanger@decaturdaily.com · 340-2442

After a third drowning incident in 11 months at Joe Wheeler State Park, including a local teen who drowned this week, park officials said they will consider revising their beach policies.

Site of tragic swim outings
Site of tragic swim outings
On Wednesday, 14-year-old Nestor Barrueta of Ninth Avenue Southwest in Decatur became the third person to drown in the park's designated swim area since it opened in 1975.

A student at Oak Park Middle School, Barrueta was described as a straight-A student who participated in several extracurricular activities.

"He was just very involved in everything," Principal Dwight Satterfield said Thursday. "This is a great loss for all of us, and our sympathy goes out to his family."

Rescue divers spent nearly two hours searching for the teen's body Wednesday noon, recovering it at about 5:36 p.m.

According to George Graybryan Jr., director of Lauderdale County's Emergency Management Agency, after spending so much time submerged, the youth was not transported for medical treatment once recovered.

Witnesses said Barrueta was swimming about 50 feet from the shore when he struggled and sank below the surface. With about 150 people at the park, according to park officials, some attempted to rescue him but were unsuccessful.

Barrueta was reportedly on a day trip to the park with his family. They were on the beach at the time of the incident.

Other drowning victims at the park's swim area in the last 11 months include an Indianapolis man in May and a Huntsville man in August 2006.

Park Superintendent Tim Haney said no lifeguards were posted at the swimming area during any of the drowning incidents, and there haven't been any posted there for "numerous years."

He said he contacted his superiors Thursday to alert them to the latest drowning, and they said they would look into it.

"For someone to drown is the last thing we want," he said. "I have talked to them to see if there are any actions we can take."

Signs at the swim area caution visitors that no lifeguards are on duty.

Graybryan said the Joe Wheeler swim area is fairly typical, about 15 feet deep and about the size of three Olympic swimming pools.

"It's just a traditional swim area that you would have in a slough, similar to what people would have at their river camp or lake camp," he said.

Satterfield said Barrueta was an avid soccer player who played for the school team. He also said the teen wrote for the student newspaper and was a member of the school's National Junior Honor Society chapter.

3 drownings in 11 months

In the 30 years since Joe Wheeler State Park opened its swimming area, there have been three drowning incidents — all within in the past 11 months. The other two victims were:

  • Valencia Flores, 24, of Huntsville, who became the first person to drown in the park’s swimming area when he apparently suffered a cramp and sank below the surface in August 2006. Other swimmers reportedly made unsuccessful rescue attempts .

  • Jorge Aguilar, 31, of Indianapolis drowned in May. According to reports, fellow swimmers did not immediately notice Aguilar’s disappearance, thinking he had gotten out of the water. Rescue workers searched for nearly three hours before recovering his body.

    - Evan Belanger

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