Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies and Fire Rescue units responded to a 911 call on Thursday afternoon (9/22) about a teen, who disappeared after jumping into a pool of murky waters of the Alafia River, just north of Lithia Springs Park in Lithia.
Following a short search, divers found the body of Gage Stewart, 18, a Tampa resident, under the water approximately 25 feet downriver.
Stewart, who reportedly had a history of medical conditions was pronounced deceased at Brandon Regional Hospital at 1:27 p.m.
HCSO officials said that Stewart and his three friends, including Austin Grafford, 18 decided to drive over the swim, jump and swing into the river, as they had done hundreds or possibly “thousands of times” before.
Visitors to the natural swimming spot have nailed a makeshift ladder to the tree trunk, which led up to a fork in the branch and served as a spot to swing or jump off of, deputies said.
According to the police report, while Grafford was adjusting the rope on the tree, Stewart climbed up to about 20 feet high and jumped into the river, feet first as he has done many times before.
When his friend did not surface, Grafford also jumped into the river after him and swam around looking for him.
Unable to find his friend Grafford jumped out of the water and asked the rest of the group to contact the Sheriff’s Office.
HCSO Public Information Officer Cristal Nunes emphasized that while the actual cause of death is yet to determined based on autopsy results, the incident is a sad reminder of the dangers of nature, especially swimming in local, natural waterways that are at times become murky or muddy, making it difficult to see what is hidden under the surface.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you have visited the same swimming spot, water levels are constantly changing, not to mention a log or other debris may be hidden underwater that may have not been there before, creating a dangerous situation and can cause injury or death,” Nunez said.
It is noteworthy that thanks to heavy rains—courtesy of Hermine, the fist hurricane that made landfall in Florida in 11 years,—the Alafia River has become extremely treacherous causing countywide flooding and moving debris down river, turning former swimming holes into dangerous traps.
According to detectives, while the location of Stewart’s fatal accident in Lithia is not safe for swimming and is under an official county issued no trespass warning notice, it is frequented by many local residents who bring along their friends.
“This is an ongoing problem,” Nunez said. “People continue to visit the area to swim and hang out. Deputies regularly check upon and keep a close eye on the location to keep people away, but often find the No Trepassing signs removed.”
The investigation is ongoing. To visit the Hillsborough County Sheriffs’s Office website please log on to www.HCSO.Tampa.fl.us.