Deputy warns of Black Creek's dangers after drowning

By Hailey Winslow, General assignment reporter, hwinslow@wjxt.com
Published On: Aug 07 2014 11:12:26 PM EDT
Updated On: Aug 08 2014 06:57:11 AM EDT

Friends and witnesses say they heard Howard Wiley screaming for help and they tried to save him but were unable to when he went under water. Police and divers found his body 2 hours later by the boat ramp in Black Creek .

MIDDLEBURG, Fla. -

Family and friends held a candlelight vigil Thursday night to honor the 19-year-old who drowned in Black Creek Wednesday afternoon.

Investigators said Howard Wiley died while swimming with friends off the Main Street Boat Ramp in Middleburg.

"It's still unclear what happened," said Clay County deputy Chris Castelli. "People obviously drown for different reasons. He could have run out of energy, not been a strong swimmer, cramped up, or got caught in debris, which there is a lot of down here."

It's difficult when divers are looking for someone in Black Creek. Every so often, the creek floods, so a lot of debris ends up in the water. That's what divers have to work through, on top of very dark water.

People on the shore held their breath as divers from the Clay County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit searched for Wiley on Wednesday.

Two hours and 15 minutes after he went under, they found him -- straight off the dock at the Main Street Boat Ramp in Middleburg.

Castelli helped head the search.

"It's difficult for everybody,” Castelli said. “The family, of course, is what we're trying to get closure for them. We know that's something they want done as soon as possible. It's tough on the divers who are down there. It can be a dangerous environment for them as well. It's a very sad situation."

It's also a very tough job.

Black Creek is just that black. It's hard to see anything and easy to become disoriented.

“If your house lights were to go off in the middle of the night, it's really hard to see, even though you know that area very well,” Castelli explained. “You're still bumping into things, and there's a lot of debris down there and the water is very dark."

Castelli asked witnesses where Wiley went under and used a sidescan sonar to mark target areas. Then the divers went down.

The problem is, because human bodies are made up of mostly water, they don't show up on sonar as well as dense objects would, like a log or a car.

An ordinance prohibits swimming within 100 feet of all Black Creek boat ramps, and warning signs are posted around the docks.

But Castelli said patrol deputies are not able to issue trespass warnings or arrest violators, so often when the deputy leaves, visitors jump back in the water.

"If we see somebody swimming at the boat ramp, we're going to tell them to vacate the property at this point,” Castelli said. “And we're looking into maybe some tougher legislation or ordinances regarding that in the future."

It's an effort to keep people safe to help avoid another tragedy, like Wednesday's drowning.

“We see kids swimming across the waterways there, maybe to a rope swing or to another shoreline across the creek there, and we talk to them about their hair color being the same as the water,” Castelli said. “The water being very dark, and very hard to see just the tops of their heads swimming across the waterway there. Very hard for a boater to see them coming in. People who are launching in and out of boat ramps, kids swimming around the back of the engines can be very, very dangerous as well."

Castelli said the Clay County Sheriff's Office plans to have a deputy patrolling the Main Street Boat Ramp this weekend to make sure no one is swimming within 100 feet of the ramp. And if they are, they'll have to leave the property.

But they cannot have a deputy out there 24/7, so he said parents need to make sure their kids aren't in the water around the dock.