Editor’s note: This is part of a weeklong series reviewing 2018 in East Texas. Today, Features Editor Jo Lee Ferguson writes about the year’s story that affected her the most.
I’ve thought a lot about the empty beds and chairs and missing milestones — the birthdays, graduations and weddings that will never happen — since August 2017, when three Boy Scouts died after their sailboat mast hit a power line over Lake O’ the Pines.
I think about it, and I cry about it, and then I get angry — angry because of the great lack of care and accountability that allowed this to happen and would allow it to happen again.
It’s a cycle that happens over and over for me. If it’s like that for me, I know it must be so much worse for the parents of 17-year-old Will Brannon, 16-year-old Heath Faucheux and 11-year-old Thomas Larry. I don’t know how they’re still standing.
And yet, they are. I know this because they allowed me the privilege of writing about their sons — who they were and who they could have been — one year after the accident that took their lives. I don’t take the responsibility for that kind of story lightly. It was important to me for people to know those young men and their families, beyond the tragedy to which their names will always be linked.
I’ve had the gift of being able to work for my hometown newspaper in some form or fashion since I was 20 years old (with a few breaks, but that’s 24 years, if anyone’s counting.) All the journalists I’ve known are journalists because they care about the people and the world around them, and for me that’s compounded by working as a journalist in the town where I grew up.
The parks my children play in are the same ones I did growing up. Most of the roads I drive today are the same ones I rode on as a passenger in my parents’ cars. Memories are everywhere. I frequently encounter people I went to school with, or their children, or their parents, or their cousins. East Texas is a small, beautiful, world.
That’s what made this great loss even more personal for me. Thomas Larry’s mother, Pamela Braun Larry, has been my friend since childhood. We were in Brownies together. One of my earliest sleepovers was at the house where her parents still live. We walked the halls of the same schools together at Pine Tree.
As adults, we’ve sometimes run into each other around town, usually with at least one of her four sons with her, sometimes Thomas. I was always struck during our visits by how sweet her children seemed, how her family seemed so happy and content.
I’m also the sister of four Boy Scouts (two Eagles) and the mother of one Cub Scout and another kid who can’t wait to be a Cub Scout. My brothers have been on similar adventures to the one those three young men were on that day, and I expect my sons will one day as well. It’s easy for me to imagine how that beautiful, sunny day would have been for them — how they would have been smiling and laughing, how the older Scouts were taking the younger Scout under their wing, how they were growing independent and confident.
After the accident, the News-Journal went to work to figure out how something like this could happen. It wasn’t the first time someone died on the lake in this same kind of accident. Our efforts have been thwarted by our lack of access to records that would help us all discuss what kind of changes might be needed in regulations for power lines and electricity around bodies of water.
We’ve pieced together enough information that we now know that the power line, which is owned by Upshur Rural Electric Cooperative, was about 13 feet below where it was required to be per Upshur Rural’s agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I know Upshur Rural committed to moving that power line underground. I know the company committed to other changes. It seems too little, too late, because we’ve already lost these three young men. And I wonder, if it could happen here, where else does the possibility for this kind of tragedy exist? Don’t we need to know? Are we willing to risk this great loss again?
I submitted a request for information to the Corps of Engineers, the controlling authority for Lake o’ the Pines, almost a year ago to try to get answers. That information has not been released. I’m hoping that this very slow process will, in the end, provide information to help us all evaluate whether additional oversight is needed.
I think about the boys and their parents often — my sweet friend Pamela and her husband, Kedrick; Dion and Michelle Faucheux; and Stan and Michelle Brannon. I told them when I talked to them about their sons that my intent was to write something so that 100 years from now, people could read that story and know who their boys were, know how loved they were and know they were missed every day.
It’s important to remember these boys for all they were — and all they could have been.