By Jennyne Pinter, firstname.lastname@example.org
“Fifteen minutes of fun,” is what Christopher Burns said he had in mind when he invited his two dogs onto his small boat Monday afternoon. It turned into anything but before it was over.
Burns boat sank, leaving him and his dogs battling to stay afloat and reach safety. Due to Bossier Sheriff’s deputies and a neighbor, he and his dogs were rescued. It was a dramatic end to what should have been a routine jaunt.
Burns, his wife, Farrah, and their dogs — Saint, a samoyed, and Tacoma, a husky/malamute — spend time camping at their lot on Evangeline Drive in Elm Grove which sits nestled up to the Lake Bistineau shore.
“I knew my wife would be getting off work soon, so I wanted to get my dogs in the boat. They love going for a boat ride,” Burns said. “I was turning left, it’s a small boat, and it just started taking on water on the left side. As soon as that happened, within two or three seconds the boat was completely under water.”
“Just a left hand turn. Nothing that I haven’t done a hundred times.”
The boat sank down about 10 feet to the muddy bottom, and thankfully Burns was wearing a life jacket which allowed him to gather up the dogs.
“Looking forward, even in a larger boat, I’m probably going to put a life jacket on from now on.”
Burns recalled that his first thoughts where that he could probably make it to shore but the dogs, who he said he loves like his children, might not be able to survive the 100-plus-yard swim.
Burns was able to get onto the front end of the boat and call his dogs to him. He wrapped one arm around each of their necks and kept their heads above water next to his. Burns was able to use his cell phone and alert 911.
“I was able to dial 911, and the dispatch lady wasn’t able to hear me, I wasn’t able to hear her,” Burns said tensely, motioning with his hands and arms how he was holding the dog and trying to use the phone. “I believe she called back, and (it was) still too wet, but the phone was working.”
After holding the phone above water for some time, it dried out enough that 911 dispatcher Allison Green was able to get through to Burns and retrieve his information and location. Burns later saw that Green had tried calling him back seven times before they were able to connect.
“I think I’d been on the front of the jon boat for about 30 minutes,” Burns commented about his waiting for rescue, “and the larger dog, Tacoma, started struggling when the wind picked up and the waves started getting larger. I started jostling and the dogs started – they knocked me off of the front of the jon boat.”
Burns held onto Saint, the smaller dog, and swam to a nearby tree where he called Tacoma back to his side. Another 15 minutes would pass before help would arrive to save the exhausted trio.
The rescue came to Burns and the dogs by way of a pontoon boat driven by his neighbor, Thomas Murphree. On board with Murphree were Bossier Sheriff’s Deputy Duane Washington, who had answered the call from 911’s Green at dispatch, and Sergeant Timothy Wynn who arrived shortly after Washington.
Murphree has been a resident of Elm Grove for 25 years and is an avid outdoorsman. He was outside at the time the police arrived and began knocking on neighbors doors in search of some assistance.
“I was working out in the front yard and Deputy Washington came up to the front fence so I walked up there and talked to him,” said Murphree. “He said that somebody’s boat that had two dogs had sunk. He told me (Burns) was at the Christmas tree and I knew exactly what he was talking about.”
The Christmas tree Deputy Washington mentioned is actually a Cypress tree in the lake which is heavily decorated with Mardi Gras beads and brightly colored aluminum cans. Thanks to Murphree’s knowledge of the layout of the lake, he had the officers climb aboard his boat and they set off into the water.
It took them about 10 minutes to find Burns and the dogs.
Murphree laughed as he remembered when he first saw who it was in the water, “I said, ‘Holy moly! That’s my neighbor!’”
Sgt. Wynn is familiar with these particular waters as well, and had a general idea of where the Christmas tree was.
“We had already called our marine patrol, but they were an hour away and we didn’t have an hour” said Sgt. Wynn. “So, Mr. Tom graciously took us on his pontoon boat and he knew the waters well, and he got us there within 10 minutes. As soon as we got there, we saw Chris hanging on the tree. You could tell that he was about ready to get off that tree.”
“From the time we got the call to us actually getting to Mr. Burns it had been already an hour that he was out there in the water, with 2 dogs, hanging onto a tree,” Dep. Washington remarked.
Lt. Bill Davis said there is an important lesson that everyone can learn from this story which could have so easily ended in tragedy, not the least of all was the importance of boating safety and warnings against prank calls to 911.
“An example of a 911 hang-up. The reason we tell people, ‘Kiddos, don’t call 911 and do that,’ is because when you call 911 and there is nothing on the other end, it triggers us to take something very seriously. In this case, because the dispatcher kept taking it seriously, y’all were able to finally connect,” Davis said to Burns.
Burns said that Green’s presence on the phone through this ordeal was very important to him.
“She assured me that help was on its way, and that they were doing everything they could to get to me,” Burns said, holding back some emotion. “She was keeping that line of communication open. It kind of made me feel like I wasn’t by myself, even though I guess I was. But, God was with me, so I wasn’t there by myself at all.”