What one mom is doing to help prevent deaths in the James River like her daughter's

Posted at 6:44 AM, May 04, 2023

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — Memorial Day will mark one year since 23-year-old Lauren Winstead of Henrico and 28-year-old Sarah Erway of Chesterfield went underwater after they floated over the Bosher Dam.

The women were with a larger group of friends when they went over the dam. Friends said they attempted to get out of the river earlier in the trip, but the current was too strong and carried them over the dam. The rest of the group survived.

Since then, Lauren’s mother Christina Winstead Brockwell has worked with Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation to install signage and warn others about the dangers on the James River.

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Laura Winstead of Henrico and Sarah Erway of Chesterfield

Brockwell, with the assistance of county adventurer programmer Greg Velzy, helped design and install a giant warning sign at Robious Landing Park.

“It's all in her daughter's memory to make this safer for everybody,” Velzy explained.

Dozens of fatalities have occurred on the James River since the 1970s, Velzy said.

He urges rivergoers to use a portage trail and go around the dams — not through it.

“Boats have gone off that dam and it's a 14-foot dam. They just fly off of it,” Velzy recalled. “It looks like an infinity pool. You don't see the edge. When you notice there's something wrong, it’s usually too late.”

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Greg Velzy

When it comes to flooded roads, officials often warn to “turn around, don’t drown.” That same logic can be applied to dams in a river.

Velzy wants people on the river to use a portage trail and “go around, don’t drown.”

“Up at Bosher’s Dam, private landowners and Dominion Energy have consented to having trails built on their land to walk around Bosher’s Dam. Dominion energy gave an easement for a portage trail to be built for the safety,” he noted.

He also warned about wood and debris piles underwater that are often referred to as strainers.

“When we want to stop often, we put our feet down and feet skid along the bottom. But their feet can get stuck up under a rock. They get pushed face down and there's really nothing that can be done at that point, unfortunately,” Velzy stated.

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He advises to know where you’re going when you’re entering the river. Know what’s happening downstream so you can avoid it.

The law also requires life jackets to be worn when the river is five feet high or above. As of Thursday morning, the river crested just below seven feet.

Velzy said this awareness is being spread across Metro Richmond as the city and Henrico have agreed to install similar warning signs in their localities.

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