Mother of 5-year-old girl who died in steel dam relives the tragedy, wants precautions near dam

Published: Jun. 25, 2018 at 6:18 PM CDT
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It has been one week.

One week since Melissa Chavez-Huston and three kids loaded up into a canoe near the Backwater Gamblers Ski Site.

Her 5-year-old Daughter Maci had just gone to the doctor for a first-grade checkup and wanted to go canoeing.

Almost directly across the river from where they put the canoe in the Rock River sits the Milan Steel Dam.

"We saw the buoys and were like, 'huh? What is that?'" she said near the steel dam Monday. "I did not know there was a dam here."

There are a handful of white stand-up buoys near the dam and a sign on each side warning boaters about it. Though, Chavez-Huston says once she saw them it was too late.

"We had been caught in a current and could not get out," she added.

After trying to paddle with her 8-year-old son, the four went over the steel dam.

"It was far worse than anything I could have imagined, because of the suction," she said.

The turbulence in the dam trapped the four of them, the two boys eventually made it through. Chavez-Huston says the four of them were all holding on to each other when the boys were hit with a log that was also bobbing up and down in the turbulence.

"I thought they were dead," she said. " I thought I had lost them, I had Chaz's life jacket still in my hand."

Chavez-Huston and Maci were still stuck.

Chavez-Huston says she gave 5-year-old Maci CPR three different times because she'd stopped breathing. Each time Maci regained consciousness and breathing, according to Chavez-Huston.

"She was a fighter and she never cried," she said. "She was pissed off and she said, 'I'm too young to die!' and 'Why the hell haven't they saved us yet?'"

Firefighters and members of the Backwater Gamblers used a yellow life raft that was tied to the boat from the ski team. The goal was to pull Maci and Melissa back over the dam against the current.

"I untied her from the log and handed her to those safety men who were working their hardest," she said. "Then, something hit it and the raft capsized. My baby was gone forever."

Flowers, dolls, and other memories now line the public access to the steel dam. Some were put there during a vigil Thursday, other's have been added in the days since. Chavez-Huston has been back at the dam multiple times since the accident.

A rope with buoys on it is usually strung across that part of the river before the dam. It was not there at the time of the accident. Rock Island Public Works Director Larry Cook says the rope line is usually in by May 15th, but this year the river has been too high for his crews to put the line in. The river must be at a level of 9.4 feet or lower.

Chavez-Huston says she wants to see more buoys and warning signs further upstream so that an accident like this doesn't happen again.

"I don't want anyone's family to go through this ever, I don't want any mom to watch their baby die like that."