Inner tube float safety questioned following deaths

A casual inner tube float along the Amite River turned deadly Sunday afternoon when two men fell into the water and never resurfaced, raising concerns about the safety protocols — or lack thereof — in place for the popular summertime leisure activity along the river.

In the past five years, a handful of people have died while floating the Amite on inner tubes, including Joshua Caleb Brantley and Phillip H. White Jr., both 26, whose bodies were pulled from a relatively deep portion of the river near Watson on Sunday evening, according to the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Brantley, of Hammond, and White, of Marrero, fell into river water approximately 8 to 10 feet deep about 2 p.m. while tubing with a group of about a dozen people, said Lori Steele, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.

It remained unclear Monday what caused the men to fall off their tubes, although Steele noted that investigators do not believe alcohol or drugs played a factor in the men’s deaths.

The Livingston Parish coroner, Dr. Ron Coe, said the men’s autopsies are scheduled for Tuesday.

In the wake of the recent deaths and other previous deaths, such as the drowning of a Folsom man in the Amite over Memorial Day weekend last year, Coe said, the community needs to look into what safety methods can be implemented to prevent future tragedies.

“We have to question whether tubing on the Amite River is a public health hazard to our community,” Coe said.

One possible suggestion Coe made is for tubing businesses to mandate the use of life jackets by children and people who cannot swim. It’s a suggestion that White’s father said he would support — although he would recommend taking it a step further, requiring everyone on an inner tube in the area to wear a life jacket.

“That’s a safety issue — regardless if you think you can swim like a fish,” Phillip H. White Sr. said.

He said his son knew how to swim “a little bit” but that he wasn’t an expert swimmer.

Even if he was, though, some experienced swimmers have reported struggling in strong Amite currents, said Steele, the Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.

About five people, including Brantley and White, have died while tubing the Amite in the past five years. In response, the Sheriff’s Office beefed up its marine division, Steele said.

The tube rental business that provided Brantley and White with inner tubes, Tiki Tubing LLC, declined comment when reached by phone on Monday. Its headquarters sits just off La. 1019 about 6 miles north of Denham Springs. Visitors park there then ride a bus upstream to a drop-off point, where they then enter the river and float back to headquarters.

On the FAQ section of the company’s website, it advises visitors that “all bodies of water have some inherent risks.” The website also indicates life jackets are available to those who ask for them.

Phillip White Sr. — who hopes his son’s death spurs a push for mandatory life jacket use — remembered many highlights from his son’s childhood. Among them were park visits and football practices.

Even as his son grew up, though, they saw each other regularly.

“We always were close,” he said.

On Sunday, Phillip White Jr.’s relationship with his own 6-year-old son was cut tragically short. Just a day earlier, the two spent much of the day in each other’s company.

A day before that, on Friday, Phillip White Jr.’s mother saw her son for the last time.

Annette White surprised him at work, bringing with her a plate of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, peas and potato salad — a meal she’ll never forget.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.