|The last swim; boys’ deaths expose invisible killer
By Judd Slivka and Maureen West
The Arizona Republic
December 31, 2000
Pat Horning is sinking, sinking, sinking into the blue-brown waters of Lake Powell, knowing what is beneath him, knowing what he must do.
He is sinking at a foot per second, the water getting darker every inch, going through a mental checklist.
Get to the bottom, take a compass bearing.
Crawl on the lakebed, hands and knees, so we don’t miss anything.
There are two kids down there.
Horning is the dive team leader at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
And because he is a good diver and this is an easy dive, he knows that in a few minutes he will find the lifeless and stiff bodies of two Colorado boys who were swimming off their houseboat last night.
What he does not know is that the bodies he recovers will set off a chain of events that will ultimately solve a mysterious string of deaths and injuries across the country. He does not know that the two bodies on the floor of Neskahi Wash will be the final pieces in a puzzle that confirms that carbon monoxide is killing people on houseboats.
What he does know is there are two kids down there in the silty water, and his job is to return them to their parents.
I’ve got two kids at home.
The bottom. It’s blacker than a coal mine, can’t see more than 6 inches.
Horning falls to his knees, gets squared away. Alongside him, two other divers are doing the same thing. Horning checks his buoyancy, takes the compass bearing.
He signals “Are you OK?” to the other divers by squeezing their arms. One squeeze for the question. Two for the reply.
They link arms and crawl off into the dark.
It is Aug. 2, and the sun is shining on the white paint of the houseboat Canyon Explorer.
“Who wants to go skiing, and who wants to go tubing?” Ken Dixey asks the nine kids on the 55-foot houseboat.
Only two of his sons, Dillon, 11, and Logan, 8, want to go.
“Anybody else want to ski?”
But there are no other takers.
So Ken and Bambi Dixey of Parker, Colo., take their two youngest out alone on the fifth day of their annual houseboating vacation. With so many other people around, a total of nine children and four adults, there hasn’t been much time to spend with any one person.
The Dixeys have been coming out to Lake Powell for 15 years with their friends Mark and Polly Tingey of Fort Collins, Colo. At first the couples went alone, but then as their children grew out of diapers and into swim trunks, they took them along. At first the kids lived in life jackets on board, but as they got older, all of the children turned into excellent swimmers, as if born to the water.
Logan, in fact, wants to be a Navy SEAL.
In 1994, Ken Dixey and Mark Tingey secretly bought a share of a privately owned houseboat as a present to their wives. The boat was the Canyon Explorer, a 55-foot Stardust Cruiser.
Every year they reserved the first week of August on that boat. For the past three years, they had taken the same route on the lake: Leave Bullfrog Marina in Utah and putter along to Iceberg Canyon. Spend a night there, then move on to Neskahi Wash, which stands off an isolated, still inlet that’s perfect for skiing. The inlet has a natural diving board, too, a rock shelf that’s ideal for kids to catapult themselves from. They nicknamed the place Jump Rock, and it became a tradition to visit there, even after Logan hit the water the wrong way the year before. He banged himself up, but kept jumping anyway.
Another tradition was the first-day safety lecture that the fathers gave their children: No running or playing tag on the boat. Always swim with a buddy.
With the children getting older and more independent, Mark added something to his safety lesson this year:
“If we ever lost anyone,” he told the kids, “it would change our lives forever.”
But it is five days later now, Aug. 2, a good day, and the safety lecture seems far away.
Beneath the blazing sun, Logan masters the art of slaloming, or skiing on one ski. He had tried it a few times before, but something always had gone wrong. On this day something finally clicks. He nails it.
Logan, the rock jumper, is fearless; when one of his friends couldn’t haul in a fish, he jumped in and tackled it, hooks and all.
He loses one of his front teeth this day. It’s a baby tooth, and his mother, Bambi, promises that she’ll hide it that night for the Tooth Fairy.
Although Logan is an adventurer, Dillon has persistence, refusing to let go of the tow bar, cutting back and forth through the ski boat’s wake. He sings as he skis, talks to the rocks as he zips by.
“Let go!” his father yells playfully.
But 11-year-old Dillon doesn’t listen. It’s too much fun, skimming along the lake.
Though he suffers from an occasional migraine headache, Dillon is confident. He’s a Little League pitcher at the top of his game; the last time out before this trip, he pitched a no-hitter. He’s going to be a baseball star, he says. Then, he’s going to be an actor.
“I’ve got plans,” he tells everyone, and no one doubts him.
Logan, always a cuddler, sits on his dad’s lap while Ken drives the boat.
When Bambi’s attention is elsewhere, Ken lets Logan, 8, steer the boat, shows him how to work the clutch.
Logan is the aggressive and outgoing one, who would crack jokes with the adults at a party while the other kids goofed with the Nintendo downstairs. Dillon is the sweet kid, the boy who told a girl who’d just gotten glasses that she looked nice, when she didn’t want to go into her classroom.
When they make it back to the Canyon Explorer, Logan is fired up and tells all the other kids about his slaloming accomplishments — and about the Tooth Fairy’s impending visit.
The parents start the grill for dinner. Normally, it’s chicken and burgers, but tonight it’s steak.
A perfect end to a perfect day in a perfect place.
After dinner, the adults wash dishes while the kids play on the boat. The kids are itching to go in the water for a swim, a nightly tradition. The adults turn the houseboat’s generator on to power the television and run the air-conditioner. Temperatures are falling, but it’s still in the 80s.
Outside, it’s getting darker, the moon a milky sliver in the sky. Someone flips the back lights on, illuminating the water.
It is shortly before 9 p.m., and a thunderhead is gathering strength on the horizon, dark against the darkening sky.
The adults walk to the front of the houseboat to get candy bars out of the freezer — “With this crowd, we need all the energy we can get,” they joke — and they hear splashes from aft.
Dillon sticks his head out of the houseboat cabin and looks at the adults. His mother looks back. Dillon cocks his head, mugs for her, then walks away.
The scream comes five minutes later.
It is Connor, the Dixeys’ 14-year-old son, running up the side of the houseboat, screaming something about Dillon and Logan. Something about Dillon flopping around in the water and everyone thought he was joking around and then he was gone.
All the kids are screaming.
Ken and Mark run to the stern.
The children are back there pointing at the water. Dillon and Logan went down and haven’t come up!
Up front, Bambi has a flash of a thought: Dillon’s migraine headaches must be something else, something worse. Epilepsy?
But Logan is missing, too.
They were swimming, and they ducked beneath the boat, surfacing in the cavity beneath the swim deck, precisely where the generator vents its odorless, colorless carbon monoxide gas.
“It’s hot,” the children hear Dillon say.
Moments later, his body appeared about 15 feet off the side of the houseboat, twitching, the children say. Then he disappeared.
At the same time, the Tingeys’ 13-year-old son, Mark. Jr., is on his knees on the grated swim platform. He sees Logan bumping his head against the platform. Tingey tries to reach under it and grab the 8-year-old, but Logan sinks too quickly.
Ken and the elder Tingey dive into the water. Tingey looks beneath the water, but it’s too silty. He grabs a pair of swimming goggles and looks again.
An accomplished scuba diver, Ken Dixey dives toward where the children last saw Dillon’s bubbles. But he can’t reach the lake bed. He manages to make it to the bottom closer to the water’s edge but runs out of air and has to surface. On a good day, he can free-dive down to 40 feet. Not today.
He comes up for air, ducks down again.
They turn out the lights and turn the generator off, thinking that the boys’ disappearance might have something to do with fumes, but there is no light at all, and quickly the lights and the generator go back on.
About 15 minutes after the first scream, Tingey and Dixey bump into each other along the ship’s side. In 20 years of knowing Dixey, Tingey hasn’t seen a thing the man can’t do. But his face says it all.
They’re gone. I’ll never see my boys alive again.
Bambi is up front trying to raise someone — anyone — on the ship’s VHF radio. But she can’t. She keeps trying.
The two men make a plan. Ken will dive deep to reach the boys. Tingey will swim to the rear where they were last seen, beneath the swim deck, a place the kids had discovered a few days earlier while untangling a rope.
Tingey swims to the houseboat’s stern and slips under the swim deck. There are no children there.
He begins to feel lightheaded and sick.
Something clicks in his head.
I’m in danger.
The fumes had something to do with what happened to the boys.
Tingey struggles out from beneath the platform. Cole, the Dixeys’ 16-year-old son, pulls him to the swim deck, where he and the others congregate, shouting the missing boys’ names.
It is 15 minutes until Tingey feels normal again. As soon as he does, he grabs a cell phone and gets in his ski boat to race out of the canyon, where the signal can register on the local cell.
He dials 911. It is 10:20 p.m. Utah time, a little more than an hour after the boys disappeared.
Ken is still diving. He is bumping into rocks, grabbing anything underwater that has form, anything that could be one of his sons.
Bambi is swimming around the sides of the boat to see if the children have somehow gotten stuck.
When the boys’ parents get out of the water, they begin walking along the water’s edge, crying, looking to see if the boys have washed up. It is a gruesome vigil, made worse by the still-darkening night.
On the boat, the children are on their knees, praying and crying.
Out on the lake, Tingey is calling Bambi’s best friend in Parker. You need to come here now, he says. You need to help the Dixeys get back home when this is over.
Ken, worried about Tingey since his experience on the swim platform, comes out in a ski boat to check on his friend. The phone calls done, the two men head back to the houseboat, each in his own boat.
Above them, the clouds have started closing in from the north and the south. Raindrops are splattering on the lake’s surface.
The call comes in to the National Park Service’s dispatch center at Hall’s Crossing, Utah, from a crackly cellular phone at 23 minutes past the hour. Two boys have disappeared while swimming off a houseboat in Neskahi Wash. Within minutes, calls go out from the dispatch center to ranger stations around the lake.
At 30 minutes past the hour, the phone rings at Steve Luckesen’s home. It is the dispatch center. Two boys are missing, swimming behind the houseboat Canyon Explorer.
Luckesen, a ranger at Lake Powell and rescue diver for nearly 15 years, knows what has happened, even before any details come out. He swears to himself.
Luckesen says goodbye to his family and races to the marina to prepare a boat. A San Juan County, Utah, sheriff’s deputy will join him, and they will wait for one of the lake’s dive teams to arrive in another boat.
The sky is getting dark and mean; the thunderstorm the Dixeys saw is moving in from Monument Valley.
It is 51 minutes past the hour. The water is beginning to get choppy as the wind picks up. The storm first seen hours ago — lifetimes ago — on the horizon is rolling in.
More than 60 miles downlake, Pat Horning is leaving his house in Page. He knew he was being called out even before he picked up the phone: The ring had a foreboding sound to it.
Now the dive team leader opens up his battered black planner and pages other divers. They will meet at the dive locker at Wahweap Marina, just north of Page. From there, they will take a helicopter north, a 20-minute flight.
Horning gets in his Ford Explorer and looks at the sky. A storm cell is gathering to the north, ugly black clouds stacking one on top of another.
It will be a rough flight.
Dave “Big D” Sandbakken, a Park Service investigator, gets the call as well. He arrives at the marina to see Horning and another diver, Rigby Ough, stowing equipment in the helicopter. Dive tanks, buoyancy compensators, vests, lines.
Sandbakken believes that there’s a slight chance they can rescue the children; in very rare cases, young children have survived immersions in cold water.
Horning knows better: They are dead. The water is warm, and if you can’t get them out in seven minutes, you’re just helping the family have closure.
At 56 minutes past the hour, the helicopter lifts off. Horning, in the back, takes advantage of the rare opportunity to see Page at night and sticks his video camera out the window.
In the front, Sandbakken sees that there are two storm cells, one from the north and one from the south, and they are closing together. Up ahead, lightning strikes. There is a small passage between the two cells; the helicopter will try to thread it.
The pilot points the helicopter toward Antelope Island, and then there is a terrible cracking sound followed by a boom. The helicopter shudders and dips.
The decision is quick and unanimous: The lightning is too close. The helicopter will turn back.
Horning and the others will have to take a boat.
Fifteen minutes later, Horning, Sandbakken and Ough are joined by a family services counselor and set off on the lake, trying to steer through a rain so bad that they have no hope of navigating visually. They have to use radar and Global Positioning System satellite signals.
Meanwhile, Luckesen finally makes it away from the pier at Hall’s Crossing with the other dive team. It is raining here, too — big, hard drops.
Thunder booms across the water, bouncing off the red-and-buff rock walls that surround the lake. Every 30 seconds or so, the scene is made stark by white lightning.
No one is saying much.
Downlake, Horning’s boat is lost. The positioning system is good, but the group comes to places where it needs to decide whether to go left or right. In the wind and rain and darkness, there is no sense of place or position. Too often, they go left when they should go right, or right when they should go left.
Soon enough, though, the storm moves off, and the lake is eerily quiet.
Back at Neskahi Wash, Tingey gathers his family on the houseboat in a circle. They pray for a bit, and then Tingey tells everyone that they should go inside. They don’t sleep; they can only lie in beds together, holding on to one another.
Tingey stares out at the smooth, dead water. He has been pacing most of the night, walking around the boat and the shore. Just walking. It is the longest, loneliest night of his life.
The only light comes from the houseboat’s back light, courtesy of the generator.
Where are they?
About 3 1/2 hours after the first call comes in, Luckesen’s party is motoring around Zar Bay, trying to find Neskahi Wash. They radio the Canyon Explorer, and Tingey comes out in a boat to lead them in.
It is still, deep in the night, around 2:10 a.m., when the rescue party sees a big, white houseboat anchored to the sides of the wash. It is 100 yards into a narrow U-shaped cove, framed by a gently sloping shoreline filled with big boulders.
People are moving around on the deck. There is an air of panic and of grief.
Luckesen goes over and talks to Tingey, gets the details. The adults were in front, five of the nine kids on board were swimming. The ranger tells Tingey to keep people away from the back of the boat in case a body is brought up. Perhaps he should shut off the generator.
The divers start getting ready. They are a new dive team, good divers, but not experienced in body recovery.
Valerie Nelson has never recovered a body. She’s a park employee who took diving lessons so she could qualify for the team. She is doing her equipment checks when Luckesen comes over and tries to illustrate what she’ll find down there.
“You are going to carry the luggage from this for your entire life,” he tells her. “If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to. Another boat of divers is on the way. Pat Horning’s coming. Don’t do this if you don’t want that luggage.”
But she says she does, and a moment later she and diver Phil Akers are beneath the still waters of Neskahi Wash.
The two come up in seven minutes, having found nothing. The water is so dark that even their dive lights barely cut through it. The bottom is all kicked up from the storm, and neither diver can see enough to make a difference.
They call down to the other boats. They’ll wait for Horning.
The dive team leader is having his own problems downlake, however. Because it is dark, he can’t run the boat flat out; he has to pick and weave his way around the lake. The lightning has stopped, and that has made things worse; at least the flashes gave Horning moments of sight. In the houseboat, the Dixeys are in bed together — Ken and Bambi, their other sons, Connor and Cole, and their niece, Adrean. They are praying and hugging and hugging and praying.
Do we want to see the bodies? Do we want to say goodbye?
The first fingers of dawn are reaching over the eastern horizon when Horning’s boat finally arrives at 5:08 a.m. The sky has cleared. It’s turning into another postcard day.
The plan: One of the boys was last seen directly under the houseboat. That’s probably where he is. They’ll drop a rope line down, take a compass bearing and crawl along the floor until they find the body, then bring it up to the back of the dive boat. When they find the body, Akers will surface first and give Sandbakken a sign, so he can make sure that the Dixey family is at the other end of the houseboat.
No one, the divers agree, needs to see a child brought up from the depths.
So they stride off the back of the dive boat, pop to the surface briefly to signal that they’re OK and then disappear into the blue-brown waters. Luckesen is standing on the back of the houseboat with Tingey, watching the bubbles. When the bubbles stop moving, that’s when they’ve found the bodies. Luckesen turns to Tingey.
“You don’t have to stand out here,” he says. “It’s perfectly OK for you to go back in.”
About 30 feet beneath them, Horning, Ough and Akers are “muddogging,” crawling along the wash’s floor under the keel, Ough holding on to Horning’s buoyancy compensator vest, Akers holding on to Ough’s arm.
It’s black as moonless midnight down there as they start up the wash’s incline toward the houseboat’s bow. They crawl about 20 feet, and Horning indicates that their line should pivot and head back to where they’ve just been.
As they turn, Horning’s hand brushes something.
On the surface, Luckesen sees the bubbles stop.
Horning looks. It is the foot of a young boy.
That’s the same size as my kid’s foot.
It is Logan Dixey. He is in the semifetal position often seen in accidental drownings, legs loosely drawn up, arms pulled to the chest, hands limp, palms down. He is wearing baggy swim trunks, black with a yellow floral pattern. He is directly beneath the swim deck of the houseboat, right where the generator spits its exhaust.
The tears start behind Horning’s mask.
He reaches over to Ough’s arm and gives the signal — three squeezes — for “we got what we came for.” Ough squeezes Akers’ arm, and Akers goes to the surface.
Horning gathers Logan up, taking care to turn the boy’s face away from him, so as not to have to look in his eyes. He is carrying Logan the way a father carries a sleeping child.
Horning is rising, rising, rising to the surface. Coming up behind the dive boat, he pushes the boy’s body up to Sandbakken, who places the body down on the deck.
The divers have been in the water for two minutes.
Horning and the other divers get out of the water, and he and Sandbakken look at the little boy’s body. There is blood around the boy’s mouth and coming out of his nostrils. Signs of drowning. The boy’s position is another sign. And then Horning sees something else: Logan’s skin is splotched cherry red, a telltale sign of carbon monoxide inhalation. They take pictures, measurements. It is all each man can do to keep from crying.
At 6:43 a.m., Horning, Ough and Akers step off the dive boat and sink, sink, sink to the bottom of the wash. They will take a compass bearing and move out at an angle from the houseboat to where Dillon was last seen.
On the houseboat, Luckesen is watching the bubbles. On the dive boat, Sandbakken finishes examining Logan’s body and begins cleaning him up. The family has asked to see the bodies. Sandbakken cleans up the boy’s face and transfers him to the houseboat.
On the wash’s muddy bottom, the three divers are crawling, crawling, crawling through the muck, hands brushing through the sand in front of them. They are moving away from the houseboat.
Crawl. Feel. Nothing. Crawl. Pivot.
About 20 feet from the houseboat’s stern, Horning feels something.
It is Dillon Dixey. He is in the semifetal position, face down, in black swim trunks.
Akers heads up to surface. Horning picks up the boy, turns the face away and again ascends to the surface holding a stiff body.
They go to the back of the houseboat and raise him up. Dillon looks the same as Logan. Same position. Blood in the same spots. Same coloration. On the houseboat, Luckesen swears to himself again.
They document Dillon, clean him up. They lay both boys on beach towels, a suggestion from Tingey, something to make them look normal, or more normal.
Someone goes up front to get the family.
There is praying. Wailing. It seems to be the only sound in the wash, reverberating off the boulders on shore and the water and echoing back.
Horning and the rest of the dive team are in the dive boat, and they turn their backs on the scene, trying to give the family some privacy in their grief.
After a few minutes, Horning and the other divers busy themselves around the boat, cleaning up gear and finding things to do. Anything but think about what has happened.
Luckesen gets in his boat and motors out of the canyon, to a spot where his cell phone will work. He makes arrangements. The dive team will prepare the bodies for transport, then pack up the houseboat with the families’ belongings. Someone from a local marina will pick up the houseboat.
Sandbakken is still walking around the Canyon Explorer.
There are no signs warning boaters about carbon monoxide poisonings. Page 26 of the generator’s manual mentions carbon monoxide, lists six symptoms of poisoning and recommends fresh air and shutting down the generator if someone is exposed.
Sandbakken finds nothing anywhere on the boat warning about swimming while the generator is running.
Meanwhile, the Dixeys’ cousin, Adrean, is standing alone in a corner looking upset. Horning sees her, notices her resemblance to one of his daughters, hugs her.
I hope that helps you. It sure helped me.
The boats are packed up. The parents hug their boys for the last time, then the family leaves, followed by the Park Service boats.
Soon, all that’s left in the first side canyon in Neskahi Wash is a houseboat and a dreary, miserable silence.
Pat Horning makes it home late on the afternoon of Aug. 3.
He hugs his children.
“Did you find them?”
“Who were they?”
The tears come from his children and from Horning. This is over for him, except for the tears and the images he can’t get out of his head.
But for Robert Baron, the work is just beginning.
A hard-working emergency doctor at Phoenix’s Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center who is the Park Service’s medical coordinator for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Baron is on his first honest-to-goodness vacation in years, the longest one he’s ever taken.
Plays in New York, visits with family in New England, then up to the coast of Maine to go boating.
A day after the boys’ bodies are recovered, Baron checks his messages. The one from the Park Service’s medical liaison says, “We had another carbon monoxide tragedy.”
Baron tries to put it out of his mind, but he can’t.
It happened again. It happened again. It. Happened. Again.
On Aug. 7, Utah’s state medical examiner issues a report on the Dixey boys’ deaths. Both died of drowning, brought on by carbon monoxide intoxication. A blood test showed that 59 percent of the gases in Dillon’s blood was carbon monoxide; Logan’s level was 52 percent.
Since 1994, when a 12-year-old Utah boy died swimming behind a houseboat on the lake, Baron had been pushing to test the carbon monoxide levels of houseboats. But he kept running into bureaucracy. There are 1,000 good reasons not to do anything, it seemed.
Rather than taking a few more days off when he returns to Phoenix, Baron flies up to Page on Aug. 9 for a meeting about the Dixey deaths. He wants to do something to make sure this never happens again.
“It can’t just be anyone’s guess anymore about the concentrations,” he says. “We have to get someone to measure this.”
The meeting is torn apart by procedural questions: Do we have the right to go on private boats? Whose jurisdiction were the houseboats in? What could they use to measure the carbon monoxide?
The two boys’ drownings have shaken the staff at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Everyone in the room wants something done.
On his flight home from Page that night, Baron writes a lengthy personal essay.
“We must continue doing all we can, as fast as we can, to prevent another poisoning. … If we choose to play long enough without changing the factors that cause these poisonings, we are assured of witnessing more deaths.
“Please, let us find a way to not have to play this game any longer.”
On Aug. 10, press releases warning of the dangers are sent out and posted on the Internet and in the marinas. The National Park Service has begun referring to the area beneath the swim deck as “the death zone.”
Several weeks later, Baron is on the phone with Luckesen, a park medic as well as a ranger.
Luckesen had suspected problems for some time, going as far as to search through the park’s medical services files in 1995, counting the number of carbon monoxide incidents that year. There were 54. He knew that people were dying of generator exhaust; he just didn’t know how to prove it.
“How many more people are you going to allow to die before you do something?” a frustrated Baron thunders at the ranger.
Go get some carbon monoxide sensors, Baron says, and test some houseboats.
At the same time, the National Park Service requests a formal investigation.
The request falls on Jane McCammon’s desk in Denver. An investigator with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, McCammon is one of the nation’s experts on carbon monoxide injuries. By coincidence, she had noted the Dixey boys’ deaths in a Denver newspaper story. She cut it out and clipped it to her organizer.
The Park Service asks her to investigate, but she isn’t sure. This will keep me away from home a lot, she tells her two teenage daughters, but two little boys died.
Her daughters tell her to go ahead.
It is on Sept. 19, in a small, windowless park office, that she makes her discovery: Six of the seven deaths she had surveyed that day were from generator fumes. The other death came from engine exhaust.
She doesn’t sleep that night. Neither does Tim Radtke, an Interior Department safety specialist working with her.
“They have dead bodies here of children,” she tells him the next morning.
The testing begins that day.
McCammon, Radtke and a few others equip three houseboats each with multiple carbon monoxide sensors.
They start the boats’ generators. In just minutes, half the sensors are “poisoned” from high levels of carbon monoxide.
On one boat, the readings are so high that McCammon and the others flee for their lives.
The next month, McCammon repeats the tests using better equipment. Again, the fume levels are extraordinary. Not just in the “death zone,” but also on the afterdeck, where the gases curl up over a houseboat’s gunwales. On houseboats in which the generator vents to the rear, beneath the swim deck, carbon monoxide levels are thousands of times higher than those that the federal government deems immediately unsafe.
They have a meeting the next day. McCammon is angry. Normally, if there’s a health concern, she can get the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to red-flag an area, restricting it until improvements can be made. This time she can’t. No one knows whom to hold responsible. “This is horrible,” she says, pounding her fists on the table. “We would like the fix to be sooner than later. I don’t want another Dixey boy death.”
But what is the fix?
Boat engines’ emissions are unregulated by law. Diesel fuel, although safer, stinks to high heaven and would guarantee that no one would ever use a houseboat again.
Alter the exhausts so that they vent out the side? Safer, but not foolproof, and still dangerous when tied up at dock or to another boat. Fence off the area? Perhaps.
There is no easy answer.
McCammon goes back to her Denver office and pounds out an angry report in a week. It is record speed for her agency, maybe for the entire federal government.
She submits it. Her boss calls.
“This is pretty strong language.”
“It’s a horrible situation,” McCammon responds. “It is language we need to use.”
Both of the boys were baseball players. Dillon wanted to grow up and play for the Colorado Rockies, and only the family vacation could have kept him from playing for his Little League team, the Colorado Bombers.
He was a pitcher and a third baseman and had just completed a monster season.
The night Dillon died, the Bombers played a game — no errors, hits when they needed them, nearly perfect.
Dillon’s coach, Jim Anest, couldn’t figure it out. Nearly five months later, Anest can still only shrug and say, “Dillon was somehow there.”
Everyone involved with Dillon and Logan’s deaths has been affected.
Dave Sandbakken, the Park Service investigator who documented the bodies, saw combat with the 9th Marines in Vietnam and used to be on the dive team at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. He has seen more than 100 bodies.
Pat Horning has been on the Glen Canyon dive team for 15 years and travels around the country doing body recoveries.
Both men still cry when they talk about the Dixey case.
Steve Luckesen, the first ranger on the scene, doesn’t say much about it, except in clinical terms. A combat veteran and former Coconino County homicide investigator, he has seen his share of the dead. But he is silent on the Dixey case, at a loss to explain how this could have happened to a poster family for boating safety.
Robert Baron and Jane McCammon, the Phoenix doctor and Denver public-health expert who put the pieces together, still cry. McCammon is seeing less of her children, traveling to Lake Powell and Lake Cumberland, Ky., searching out more statistics on boating accidents, searching for the truth. Next month, she will travel to Lake Mead, Nev., for more tests.
Mark Tingey, who nearly died trying to save the Dixey boys and who held the family together after the drownings, has flashbacks in business meetings. He has become an advocate for fixing the carbon monoxide problems on houseboats. He has sent letters to the Coast Guard, the Park Service and manufacturers, trying to effect some kind of change.
“I vow to keep this thing alive until something is done,” he says, nearly five months later at his Fort Collins, Colo., home.
The Coast Guard is considering how to solve the problem. After ignoring two letters from Park Service officials at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area warning about carbon monoxide on houseboats, the Coast Guard is now asking manufacturers for safety changes. On Dec. 21, the service’s Washington, D.C., office sent a letter to the nation’s 85 registered houseboat makers, giving them until Jan. 29 to submit plans to correct the flaw.
And just Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado demanded a recall of rear-venting houseboats.
In Parker, Colo., Ken and Bambi Dixey still mourn. A dentist who took on an associate so he could spend more time with his children, Ken could do anything, Tingey says, except save his sons.
Tingey sold the houseboat for the Dixeys, took care of the insurance. That leaves only the grief.
“The loss is so great, it will never be OK,” Bambi says now. “But we will have to live with it.”
She still has the tooth that Logan lost on his last day alive.
Water has always been a part of Ken’s life, and Lake Powell has been a part of it for 15 years.
He may never return there.
One of their two surviving sons, Connor, prays every night, for his family and for his brothers. He has grown sensitive to deaths in movies. They used to mean nothing, just celluloid deaths. But he was there, and now he is the brother of two dead kids.
The family members have talks every week about the drownings; they say they’re doing well, all things considered.
They’ve set up a foundation to raise money to build a four-field baseball complex in honor of their lost children. They’ve raised about $300,000 so far and will need about $1 million.
The room that Dillon and Logan shared is unchanged. The posters of White Sox designated hitter Frank Thomas and one-time Rockies third baseman Vinny Castilla still hang on the walls. The only change is the signed baseballs from schoolmates and the poetry written about the boys scattered on the boys’ matching red-and-white checkered bedspreads.
A friend of Logan likes to come over and play in the room sometimes.
By the Dixey home’s front porch is an epitaph to the lost boys: “If tears could build a stairway and memories a lane, I’d walk right up to heaven and bring you home again.”
If we ever lost anyone, it would change our lives forever.
Copyright 2000, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. This article graciously provided courtesy of The Arizona Republic.