Teen friends bond closer in wake of near drowning

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CARBON HILL - Jonathon Vinson and Elijah Williams, both of Carbon Hill, have become like brothers after living through a near-drowning experience on Smith Lake on July 12. 

On Friday, Vinson, 15, and Williams, 16, who have been best friends of late since Williams moved to the area, talked about their experience in the office of Carbon Hill Police Chief Eric House. House said it happened about 2:30 p.m., as they planned to swim across a channel at the lake. 

"It started with the idea of going to Smith Lake Dam to swim for a couple of hours, just to have fun," said Vinson in a handwritten account. "We were there for about two or three hours before Elijah and I had the idea to try and swim across the lake." The distance was approximately 75 yards.

Little did we know that we were there around the time that they had the dam turbines on. So that made a strong undercurrent that was constantly pulling at us." 

The two teens made it about halfway across the lake "when my chest started feeling a little heavy from the exhaustion, but I continued to to try and make it across," Vinson said. "I got about 50 to 75 feet (roughly) from the other side when I realized that I couldn't swim anymore at this point. I was struggling to keep my head above water." He was struggling to get air into his lungs, and starting to panic. 

"With one of my few breaths I had left, I let out the word 'Help,' hoping someone would hear me," Vinson said. He then experienced an experience he likened to falling asleep. 

"My friend Elijah, who was swimming across with me, did hear me and turned around and went back to try to save me. Sadly, when he tried to save me, he went under with me. Now I don't know how we got pulled out, but I do know that I woke up on the bank with one of my friends Joe (Washburn) behind me saying, "I got you, I got you!" Turns out he was the one who swam out there and risked his life to save mine." He said he was so glad Joe was there, "or I wouldn't be here today." 

In an interview, he said after his rescue, "I woke up on a rock that was in the water. But I was able to sit down in the water. I was sitting there. I had no clue what had happened. A couple of my friends were around me." He was moved to the top of the bank, and he saw Williams. 

Vinson thinks he sat on the bank for about 30 minutes, although it felt to him like five minutes. "I had no track of time whatsoever," he said. 

Williams said that day he and Vinson "were sitting there playing around. It sounded like a pretty good idea. We were at the rocks. We were going to swim from one side of the rocks to the other. And it was me, my girl friend Andrea and Jonathan."

However, he said the currents were "too much" from the turbins. Williams was a few feet ahead of Vinson

"We got about 75 percent of the way, and Jonathan just started giving out," he said. "I was notice he was starting to have trouble, so I went back to try to help him and try to pull him on the shore." 

Vinson tried to use Williams like a floatation device, pushing him under. "That's understandable, when people are panicking, they tend to do that," Williams said. "My girlfriend Andrea, she swam to the shore and she yelled for help. By that time, we were both already like about to die, pretty much. We didn't think we were going to get out of that water. 

"Andrea pulled me out of the water at the dam. At this time, my friend Joe Washburn, he was at the dam that day, too, and he saw everything going on. He came and he helped get me off the rock (and onto the bank, away from the water)." After that, it is hazy for him to remember.  

"I believe it was Joe who jumped in to get Jonathan out. But if it wasn't for any of them, we wouldn't be here today," he said. 

Crystal Pratt, Williams' mother, said a UAB nurse told her later that Williams had taken in a good amount of water. 

Williams was airlifted to UAB Hospital. Vinson had to go to Children's of Alabama by ambulance, staying there five days due to low heart rate, a problem with kidneys and not being able to keep food down. 

When Vinson came home, he still had trouble keeping food down, but by the second day he woke up from a nap, turned to his mother and said, "I got to go see Elijah. I never saw him yesterday." 

He has been staying over at the Williams house since, with the permission and encouragement of both mothers, both of whom Vinson gets along well with. Still recovering from the emotional trauma of the near-drowning, Vinson finds the setting calm and less populated near his friend, allowing for a speedier recuperation, even keeping food down. They are sharing a bedroom in the home, with Pratt having no trouble from the teens. (Vinson goes with his mother to get food to bring back.) 

"We're brothers now," Vinson said, with Williams agreeing. 

Pratt was beside herself when she first heard of the incident. She had just obtained custody again of her son after his father had kept him in El Paso, Texas, for several years longer than she planned, Pratt said. Worse, Williams had a near-drowning incident at Clear Creek when he was 3, and Pratt's 8-month old brother died after falling in a mop bucket.

Asked what he had learned from the experience, Williams said, "Well, I can promise you one thing: I'm not going swimming for a while. ... Anything above my chest, no."