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Mother doesn't want son's death to be in vain

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Kelvin Staffon drowned Sept. 8 at SML

By Tom Wilmoth

    The mother of an 18-year-old Williamsburg teen who drowned at Smith Mountain Lake Sept. 8 continues to mourn  the loss of her son while disputing some of the claims in the report about her son’s death.

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    Ultimately, she hopes the story of her son’s death might help save someone else’s life in the future.
    Two men from Williamsburg drowned about 1:20 p.m. that Saturday in Smith Mountain Lake after leaving a boat in the Beach Island area in Bedford County. Kelvin Staffon, 18, and Daniel Leannis, 47, died as a result of the tragedy that still brings tears to the eyes of Kelvin’s mom, Denise Staffon.
    Staffon and a friend, Kim Love, were back in Bedford County this week, some six weeks after she was first here dealing with Kelvin’s death. She was at work when she learned of the drownings  of her son and Daniel, her mom’s boyfriend, who died trying to help Kelvin.
    “There are too many deaths going on (at the Lake),” Denise said. “You don’t plan to put your kids into a grave before you.”
    The two men were at the Lake on vacation with their girlfriends. Kelvin had just graduated from Bruton High School and had a job helping Daniel with a roof. The four Lake visitors had boated to an island on the Lake. The two men headed back out after dropping the two women on the shore.
    Denise said reports following her son’s death said he wasn’t able to swim. “He has been swimming since he was a toddler,” she said Monday. “I haven’t even been able to grieve yet.”
    But Denise said she had to come back to the area to deal with what she believes is misinformation—and to promote safety.
    The four eastern shore residents hadn’t been at SML long, before the drownings occurred. They were using Daniel’s boat and renting a house. Denise’s mom had rented the same home last year.
    This was their first venture out since arriving at the Lake.
    The report from Conservation Police Officers with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries states that the two men left the island to go back out on the water and swim. According to Sgt. Bryan Young, a conservation police supervisor, the investigating officers report, based on interviews at the time of the drowning, indicated Kelvin wasn’t a swimmer and that Daniel was a weak swimmer.
    Denise, however, disputed that account and said the boat had been stuck in mud which led her son to leave the boat in the first place. She said Kelvin struggled in the mud and Daniel jumped out to help him.
    The more he struggled, the more he sank, Denise said.
    Sgt. Young, however, said the two men jumped into water more than 11 feet deep. “All indications were he didn’t understand how deep it was,” Young said, adding that there hadn’t been any indications the men got hung up in mud. “It (the water depth) was almost double his height.”
    Denise came to the area with a folder full of photos of her son, from the time he was little until his graduation. In fact, she had pictures taken of the group at the island where the drownings occurred. Many photos of her son show him in water. Denise said Kelvin and his girlfriend often went to a local pool in the area.
    Conservation Police Officers and members of the SML Marine Volunteer Fire and Rescue department responded to the emergency call. Members of the Fire and Rescue crew arrived first. The call was placed about 1:20 p.m. and  Young said the report indicates emergency personnel were at the scene in 10 to 15 minutes and Conservation Police Officers arrived a few minutes later. He said the recovery operation of the two men was complete within 25 minutes.
    Denise, however, said the response time was longer. She believes more people should be trained in basic rescue operations; she believes the response could have been faster.
    She also believes there should be more signs promoting safety. Denise, who lives near Virginia Beach, said there signs are posted warning people that they swim at their own risk. She believes the Lake could use more safety signs as well.
    Sgt. Young said people who use the Lake for boating or swimming activities inherently do so at their own risk. Only a couple of designated areas—Smith Mountain Lake State Park and SML Community Park — have designated areas for lifeguards.
    He also stressed safety. Young said that includes understanding the risks and wearing a life jacket, whether you’re a good swimmer or not. He also stressed having some sort of floatable device to throw to someone in distress.
    “Throw, don’t go,” is the universal concept used by most water safety organizations, Young said. “There are risks to jumping in yourself to rescue a panicked swimmer.”
    But having the drownings linked to that concept has troubled Denise. She said she found an instance on the Internet where her son and Daniel’s death were being used as an example to make this point.
    Denise said Kelvin could swim, and used as an example a time when he was in the sixth grade when he saved his friend’s life at a swimming pool. “The Lake took his life,” she said.
    And she’s determined to get results and not let her son’s death be in vain.
    “This hurts my heart and my soul so bad,” Denise said of the deaths. “I still treated (Kelvin) like he was my baby. I never once thought I would have to worry about my son drowning.”
    Young said ultimately the VDGIF report reflects the statements that were given by witnesses that day. He said, ultimately a tragedy occurred. “We try to work to prevent that from occurring again,” he said.
    That includes the boater safety courses promoted around the area. This past year some 1,800 students completed a course in this area—and that doesn’t include those who took the courses online, he said.