“I didn’t really even think about it,” the Soddy-Daisy resident said. “I saw the boat floating away. It wasn’t getting any closer. The motor was idling. The way the wind was blowing, it was headed right out to Chickamauga Lake. I decided I’m just going to go in.”
Back on the dock, Beason and his companions — younger brothers Maddoux, 17, and Knox, 10, and family friend Jeron Wallin, 17 — were waiting to make sure all was well. They thought the man made it to the boat — he was a strong swimmer, Beason said. But they couldn’t understand why they didn’t see him climb in or why the boat was still drifting away. Had he gone under?
“I kept asking my buddy, ‘Dude, do you see his head? Can you see his hands?'” Beason said.
Sumrell, meanwhile, had made it to the boat with little trouble, a distance of about 50 yards, he estimates. He had surfaced on the opposite side of the boat, away from the dock, where the boys couldn’t see him.
But even with the boat as a lifeline, he wasn’t out of danger. He had tried several times to pull himself in, with no success. Exhausted by the effort, chilled by the 50-degree water and weighed down by his wet blue jeans, he could only cling to the side and debate his next move. As he saw it, he had two choices: Stay with the boat, as it drifted toward the open river channel, and hope another boater would come along to save him. Or leave the boat and swim back to shore.
He knew the better plan was to stay with the boat. But he was cold, and the boat was drifting.
“All I knew was that I was floating away,” he said. “I was really tired. I didn’t know if I could make it if I tried to swim back. I was praying real hard that I could make a good decision.”
He could hear the boys calling from the dock, their voices thin in the distance, asking if he was OK. He didn’t have the energy to answer.
Then he felt the boat jiggle and heard a voice, this time distinct and overhead, say, “Are you still down here, Mister?”