Steven Heath Lowery, 36, of Sylacauga, drowned Tuesday as he was checking netting that had been placed in Lake Howard for this Saturday’s Fishing Derby, which has since been canceled by the Chamber of Commerce.
Sylacauga police, fire and ambulance services responded to the scene at approximately 5:30 p.m. Lowery was transported to Coosa Valley Medical Center where he was pronounced dead by Talladega County Coroner Shaddix Murphy at 5:59 p.m. The cause of death was drowning, Murphy said, and there will be no autopsy.
“There is no question the cause of death was accidental drowning,” he said.
Lake Howard caretaker Raymond Black said Lowery, a journeyman lineman for the Utilities Board since 2006, had gotten off work for the afternoon and went to get an air tank filled before arriving at the lake just before 5 p.m.
A certified scuba diver and member of the Coosa Valley Rescue Squad, Lowery was in full scuba gear as he entered Lake Howard at the southeast corner off Boat Dock Lane, where a net had been placed in a slough to block off the area where children were to fish during the derby. The diver worked to secure the net to the bottom of the lake and was about midway across the slough when he rose to the top, removed his mouthpiece and began to yell, “Pull me out! Pull me out!”
Black and another man promptly got in a boat parked at the nearby dock and reached Lowery within a few minutes, but his head was already submerged by that time. The lake is roughly 14 feet deep in the area he was located.
The other man in the boat and a woman who was on the bank pulled Lowery out of the water, Black said, and waited on an ambulance. What exactly went wrong is still unclear.
“I think something happened to him or his equipment, one,” Black said. “They’ve been doing this for 15 years, and they’ve never had a problem. The diver gets in the water and he goes down and up all the way across to make sure the net is on the bottom, then he takes hold of the net and pulls himself back across. Ain’t nothing ever happened like this.”
Several different divers have performed this task for the Chamber’s Fishing Derby without incident, but this was Lowery’s first year to help, Black said.
Police Chief Chris Carden said the police investigation into the drowning is closed and Lowery’s scuba equipment was released to his family.
“This is a tragic occurrence,” Carden said. “The police department is deeply saddened for Heath and for his family. The outpouring of community support has been noticed, and it will take some time for people who knew Heath to pick up the pieces. He had a lot of friends between the Utilities Board, the Rescue Squad, and I even had a call from Washington D.C. from somebody affected by tragedy. He was well-known and had a lot of friends from all around.”
Mayor Doug Murphree and Chamber of Commerce President Scott Hamlet echoed those sentiments. The Utilities Board declined to comment.
“He was volunteering to help a community event, and it’s a tragic, tragic thing that happened,” Murphree said. “He was well-qualified for what he was doing and was training to become a rescue diver. I would hope we could find out exactly what happened at some point, but I know we lost a good citizen and a fine young man.”
Hamlet, speaking on behalf of the Chamber Board of Directors, said they felt it was in the best interests of everyone involved to cancel the Fishing Derby.
“Our hearts are heavy and our thoughts are with the Lowery family at this time of need and loss,” Hamlet said. “We will continue to lift up his family daily.”
Funeral arrangements for Lowery will be announced by Radney-Smith Funeral Home.
The last known drowning at Lake Howard occurred in July 1994 when then-mayor James Payton died as he was attempting to recover a remote-controlled boat for his stepson. Carden said there have been no other drownings at the lake, which doubles as the city’s water reservoir, to his knowledge since then; however, Black said several people have drowned in the area around the water plant over the years. That area is secured with a locked gate, while the recreational area is open from dawn until dusk every day except Monday. No swimming is allowed.
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