A Rusk County teen died Thursday night after he attempted to save a friend swimming in a lake at a Henderson park.

Chelsea Jones, her fiance Thomas Reneau and friend Griff Gainey were fishing at Lake Forest Park when a group of people, later determined to be 17-year-old Johnathan Cano and four friends, walked to the gazebo, she said.

“I could hear them talking ... playing around, just being teenagers and I heard them saying, ‘I can’t swim. I can’t swim,’ and they’re daring each other to swim out to the buoy in the middle (of the lake),” Jones said. “The next thing I know, I hear a splash. I turned around and (saw) one of the kids swimming out toward the buoy.”

Jones said there’s a sign in the park that bans swimming in the 15-acre lake. Moments after hearing the splash, she heard a swimmer scream for help.

“Johnathan jumped out there to get to him. He got out there to him, and then they both were out there hollering for help,” she said. “You can tell that they were terrified by the sound of their voices. They were hollering ‘Help me’ in Spanish over and over again.”

Reneau and Gainey dropped their fishing poles, stripped down to their underwear and dived in the lake to save them, Jones said.

“By the time we got halfway there, Johnathan had already gone under water, and we got to (his friend),” Gainey said. “I told Thomas to get him and dove down looking for Johnathan several times, but to no avail. I couldn’t find him. The water was too deep, and there was too much moss and mud.”

While Reneau and Gainey worked to recover Cano and his friend out of the lake, another friend called 911 at 7:08 p.m., said Henderson Police Department Lt. Brian Bathke.

Jones said she took the phone from the teenager who called 911 because he was shaken up and answered a dispatcher’s questions before first responders arrived.

“The first two officers and the first fireman on the scene all bailed in the water,” Bathke said. “They took off all of their equipment and jumped in the lake, swimming, searching and looking. We just continued from that point to call in for help. We called in more fire units, the Henderson Rescue Unit and then ... the Texas Parks & Wildlife game wardens.”

Soon after, personnel from the Henderson police and fire departments arrived. Carlisle High School coach Clay Baker was notified by a Rusk County sheriff’s deputy that “his kids” were involved and came to the park.

“Once they figured out the situation, they tried to help the kids who were there and do whatever they could to find the young man, the one we lost. Everyone was just working as hard as they could to try to help the kids,” Baker said.

Gainey said he and his friends gave statements to several Henderson police officers, a detective and a Rusk County game warden. They then stuck around until law enforcement recovered the teenager’s body.

“Henderson Fire and Rescue was able to launch a small, flat-bottom boat to search and make the recovery,” said Kirk Clendening, Rusk County game warden.

Cano was found about 30 to 35 feet from the gazebo around 8:20 p.m, Bathke said.

“He died a hero,” Jones said. “His friend was drowning and he jumped in to save him. This is so heart breaking, and I hate that I had to see it happen ... Everyone keep these families of all of the kids that were involved in your prayers.”

Cano played football and ran track for the Carlisle Indians. Both teams “are like a brotherhood,” Baker said.

“We’re a very close group. Coaches, players and faculty — everybody lost a brother, not a student,” the coach said.

According to information posted on the Carlisle ISD Facebook page, counselors are available at each school to help students deal with Cano’s death.



Brittany Michelle Williams, a University of Arkansas alumna, serves East Texas as an education reporter at the News-Journal. She won Arkansas Press Association and Arkansas AP Media Editors awards for her work in El Dorado, Arkansas.