SHREVEPORT, La. – Christopher Patlan was hanging out with friends on the Red River when he heard the desperate screams coming from seven teenagers. One minute they were wading in shallow water, the next they plunged into a dropoff 25 feet deep.
Patlan bolted the 10 yards to the river and jumped in, saving 15-year-old DeKendrix Warner. By the time he had dragged the boy to safety, the six others from two families — all nonswimmers — had drowned. Family members, who also can't swim, watched helplessly.
"Everything happened so fast. It was like a wreck," Patlan said Tuesday.
Just minutes earlier, Monday afternoon had started out as a typical summer get-together. A large group of relatives and friends, including about 20 children, gathered on a sandy shore near the northwest Louisiana river's bank to cool off from the oppressive heat and to barbecue. They hadn't even set up the grill.
The teens were splashing around in waist-high water when DeKendrix stepped off a slippery ledge. As he kicked and flailed, one cousin rushed to help — and found himself plunging into the severe dropoff. Then another.
"I stepped and I started drowning," DeKendrix told The Associated Press on Tuesday, speaking in a low voice outside his inner-city Shreveport home, a one-story white clapboard structure with peeling green trim and an unkempt yard.
"It's hard when you can't save your kids," said Maude Warner, whose 13-year-old daughter Takeitha and sons 14-year-old JaMarcus and 17-year-old JaTavious were among those who drowned.
"It's hard when you just see your kids drowning and you can't save them," she told KTBS TV.
The other victims were three brothers: 18-year-old Litrelle Stewart, 17-year-old LaDairus and 15-year-old Latevin.
The area of the drownings is near a public park, but it's not a designated recreational or swimming spot and no lifeguards are on duty. It's frequented by swimmers and fishermen, who must walk through woods along a path to reach the river. The city had just dug a trench to limit access to it.
"The river is a dangerous place. It's no place to even put your foot in if you don't know how to swim," said Shreveport Fire Chief Brian Crawford.
The lone life jacket nearby was thrown to the victims but none could reach it.
The tragedy highlights an unsettling statistic. Sixty-nine percent of black children have little or no swimming ability, compared to 41.8 percent of white children, according to a study released last spring by the sports governing body USA Swimming. All the Louisiana victims were black.
And African-Americans drown at a rate 20 percent higher than whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For decades, segregation limited the access of black people to public and private pools and the disparity continues because many poor and working-class children still have limited access to pools or instruction.
Monday's tragedy "confirms what we are finding — this continuing cycle of people not knowing how to swim and their children not knowing how to swim and still being around water," said Sue Anderson, USA Swimming's Director of Programs and Services.
"The lack of awareness of how important it is that children learn how to swim."
Patlan, who saved the one teen, is white and Hispanic and took swimming lessons as a kid.
Parental fear and lack of parental encouragement were the top two reasons children and parents gave for not swimming, Anderson said, adding that fear trumped any financial limitations in the study.
"Adults seem to pass their fear of water onto their children," she said. "There seems to be a culture that says, 'Its a scary environment don't go there.'"
Marilyn Robinson, a friend of the families, was among the adults who could only watch the victims go under.
"None of us could swim," Robinson told The Shreveport Times. "They were yelling 'Help me, help me! Somebody please help me!' It was nothing I could do but watch them drown one by one."
Korey Prest said he tried in vain to save one of the victims. "He slipped out of my hands. I couldn't feel him no more," he said.
After a more than two-hour search, divers discovered the teens' bodies at nightfall, in a muddy 30-foot-deep section of the river about 20 feet from where they disappeared. The murky water hindered the divers, who sectioned off the river as they meticulously searched the bottom.
At their Shreveport neighborhood on Tuesday, family and friends gathered to offer condolences, hugging one another and holding an impromptu prayer vigil.
"These are some of the greatest kids in the world," said the Rev. Emmitt Welch, who knew all the victims in his work as a Baptist youth minister. "I mean when you think about the ideal children, these kids are wonderful."
Nearby, DeKendrix leaned against a pole, the lone survivor plucking nervously at his purple T-shirt, and sighed.
Associated Press Writer Lisa Orkin Emmanuel in Miami contributed to this report.