It was supposed to be an afternoon of fun, swimming and barbecuing for two Louisiana families and ended in tragedy that began 10 minutes after the group arrived at Charles and Marie Hamel Memorial Park in Shreveport.
A group of teenagers from both families decided to take a dip in the Red River in order to cool off from the day's oppressive heat when one stepped off a slippery ledge, sinking into much deeper water and began drowning. In an effort to rescue him, six more teens dove into the shallow waters, some 20 to 30 feet deep, and all but one also drowned.
Shreveport Fire Chief Brian Crawford said as soon as the first teen was in trouble, the others instinctively rushed to help.
The parents of the teens, who were unable to swim, stood helpless at the shore and watched as their children screamed and struggled before drowning.
"Imagine watching your child drown and not being able to do anything," Crawford told CNN. "Whether you can't swim or don't swim ... you're just gonna go and do what you think you have to do."
A bystander rescued DeKendrix Warner, 15, the sole survivor, who was the first to attempt to save the others. Speaking from his home in Shreveport, he told The Associated Press "I stepped and I started drowning."
Warner, who said he had been going down to the river all week, recalls that he was kicking and felt like the river was pulling him under. When he was finally pulled from the water, he told the man to go help his cousin.
"We were struggling," Warner told The Shreveport Times. "I went down twice and came up. One person reached for me, and before I knew it, all of us were drowning."
Marilyn Robinson told the Associated Press that she also watched helplessly as the victims began struggling in the water. She said the families, including 20 children, were out at a sandbar to barbecue and have a good time. They frequent the area and were familiar with the water, said Robinson, who identified herself as a friend of both families.
"None of us could swim," Robinson told the Associated Press. "They were yelling 'help me, help me. Somebody please help me.' It was nothing I could do but watch them drown one by one."
The names of the teenagers who drowned have been released as brothers Litrelle Stewart, 18; Latevin Stewart, 15; and LaDairus Stewart, 17; and siblings Takeitha Warner, 13; JaMarcus Warner, 14; and JaTavious Warner, 17.
Chief Crawford said divers were committed to retrieving the children's bodies, even as the sun went down.
"I'm a parent, and I can't imagine I've lost my child and then they spend the night at the bottom of a river," he said.
The divers, who said the riverbed drops from a shallow area to about 28 feet deep, said the six teens were found within 20 to 30 feet of each other. Because the divers were wading through "black water," in search of the victims, the recovery took more than two hours.
Investigators, who are trying to reconstruct a timeline of the events leading up to the drownings, say police officers have issued tickets, warnings and even created barriers this summer to discourage people away from the swift Red River, which is a popular spot for boaters who dock their boats and barbecue. But it can be a death trap for someone without a life jacket who cannot swim.
In honor of the children's memory, Chief Crawford told CNN.com that he wants the public to be aware of the river's inherent danger.
"Somebody's going down to that river today, and they don't need to get in the water if they don't know how to swim or have a flotation device."
According to an article in USA Today, USA Swimming, an organization that promotes the culture of swimming by creating opportunities for swimmers and coaches of all backgrounds through clubs, events and education, commissioned a study that showed almost 60 percent of African-American children could not swim.
That's almost twice the figure compared to Caucasian children. The organization, which said that less than 2 percent of its nearly 252,000 members who swim competitively year-round are black, has a two-fold mission, executive director Chuck Wielgus said.
"It's just the right thing to do — making an effort so every kid can be water-safe and quite frankly it's about performance. We're something of a niche sport and for us to remain relevant, considering the changing demographics of the population, it's important we get more kids involved at the mouth of the pipeline," Wielgus told USA Today.
Statistics show that African American children drown at a rate almost three times the overall rate. USA Swimming hopes the survey will strengthen its efforts to lower minority-drowning rates and attract more African American's into the sport.
The study, which was completed by five experts at the University of Memphis' Department of Health and Sports Sciences, surveyed 1,772 children aged 6 to 16 in six cities — two-thirds of them black or Hispanic — to gauge the more contributing factors to the minority swimming gap.
The study found that 31% of the white respondents could not swim safely, compared to 58 percent of the blacks. The non-swimming rate for Hispanic children was almost as high at 56 percent, although more than twice as many Hispanics as blacks are now members of the USA Swimming organization.
Swimming officials said the key indicator to lowering the number of minorities who cannot swim is not limited to race, but family — children whose parents are non-swimmers are eight times more likely to drown.