Authorities update response following teen’s river tragedy; talk special effort by divers in recovery
Published 12:40 am Friday, June 2, 2023
PORT NECHES — Preliminary autopsy results in the death of Groves teen Conner Curtice were not available as of Thursday afternoon.
Justice of the Peace Ben Collins Sr. said the autopsy was performed Thursday morning and he anticipates the preliminary cause of death to be accidental drowning.
Curtice, 14, died after falling overboard from a boat Monday in the Neches River.
A school district official said he had attended Groves Middle School and was going to be an incoming freshman at Port Neches-Groves High School.
Family described Curtice as an avid fisherman and hunter. A vigil was held Wednesday at the cross at Port Neches Riverfront Park, according to Care for Conner Curtice & Family Facebook page.
A GoFundMe fundraiser to aid the family of Curtice had brought in more than $52,000 from its launch Tuesday to Thursday at approximately 2 p.m.
Texas Parks and Wildlife are the lead agency in the recovery and now the investigation.
Game Warden Capt. Ryan Hall explained TP&W have jurisdiction over the regulations on the water. The Texas Water Safety Act gives them statewide jurisdiction and any time there is a drowning, or such as in this case, a boat accident they are the agency whose responsibility it is to investigate and report to the U.S. Coast Guard any boating accident that occurs on public water.
The search for Curtice began not long after he was reported as having fallen overboard while boating Monday.
Texas Game Wardens, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Marine Division, the Port Neches Fire Department, the Beaumont Fire Department and the U.S. Coast Guard conducted an extensive search using sonar technology to locate the body.
Hall said the Texas Game Warden Dive Team was called in to search on Tuesday because they have specialized equipment and training. The team made the four-hour trip to the area and got out on the water by noon. They made the recovery near 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Hall said there were a lot of moving parts in operating to recover the teen. Commercial vessel traffic was halted in the area during the search and divers had several areas to focus on from sonar scans and witness accounts.
Hall said they were not going to give up until the child was recovered.
“It’s amazing what these guys did,” Hall said, speaking of a thunderstorm with lightning that had settled in during the search.
It was during the storm that Curtis’ body was recovered.
The divers worked at the risk of harm to themselves to try and bring closure to the family, he said.
“The dad reached out to all of us and was extremely appreciative,” he said. “For them to stay out there that little extra time as the storm was moving in… I’m so glad we were able to bring closure to that family.”
Hall has a 15-year-old child and said he can’t imagine what the family is going through.
He knew the family couldn’t begin to heal until they had closure.
As for the actual events that led to the incident — it will be investigated. During the recovery process, Game Wardens were going by what they were told by witnesses and other information. They were told initially Curtice and an 18-year-old friend each fell out of the Jon Boat. They may have taken a sharp turn and were taking on water for some reason.
A Jon Boat is a small aluminum boat steered by a boat tiller, which is attached to a motor.
The Neches River is a main thoroughfare for ships, barges and boats and is dangerous. Former Port Neches Police Chief Paul Lemoine, who is an avid outdoorsman, can attest to the danger of the river, as he has known a number of people who have drowned in those waters.
One person was a duck hunter he had gone to school with. The man went out duck hunting one morning and never made it back.
“He was crossing the river early one morning. We never knew what happened. He was found floating a few days later,” Lemoine said.
His friend had launched a Jon Boat from what is locally called Sara Jane Canal then cut across the river toward the marsh area.
A neighbor of Lemoine’s also drowned in the river not far from the shore. The man had gone fishing and didn’t tie his boat off at the dock properly and the boat began to drift away. The man tried to swim to it but was unable to reach the boat. A city employee was in the vicinity and tried to help but was unsuccessful. The man drowned.
The drowning victim may have had life jackets in the boat, he said.
Lemoine said he has self-inflating life jackets that he puts on when he gets out of his truck before he gets on the water.
“Most of the time when people drown in the river they don’t have a personal flotation device or life vest and that river is so dangerous at times. It looks serene,” Lemoine said. “With ship traffic, you can see them real easy but they may not see you.”
There are other dangers lurking in the waterway. The river may be running high, concealing trees and other debris just under the water. Or there could be a rogue wave coming off a tug or other vessel.