CANYON LAKE, Texas -- As a Torch magazine designer for the past 17 years, Dave Stack has helped produce hundreds of heartbreaking tales to share the lessons learned with readers. Then, he found himself at the center of one of those stories. Four years after losing his grandson to a drowning accident, he and his family are still trying to cope with the tragedy.
"I sent him away to die!" sobbed Loida Stack as a single tear slowly rolled down her cheek. With red-rimmed eyes, her husband Dave gently squeezed her hand and opened his mouth as if to say something, but the words didn't come. He slumped his shoulders and leaned back in his chair. How many times had he heard these tortured cries from his bride of 34 years? A hundred? A thousand?
"The truth is," he sighed, "we both feel responsible for Jerry's death."
Jerry Madrigal is their grandson who drowned July 28, 2008, while on their watch at a family excursion to Canyon Lake -- less than an hour from their home in San Antonio. A freshman at San Antonio's Lee High School, he was 15 years old. Jerry, his 14-year-old sister, Myya, and his 13-year-old cousin, Alyssa Santana, accompanied their grandparents to the Army marina at the lake, as they had every year for the past decade.
"They loved the lake -- especially Jerry," said Dave, who since 1995 has worked at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, as a designer on Torch magazine. "When they were little, we never took our eyes off them for a second. But as they got older and reached the teen years, I guess we'd gotten more comfortable and become more complacent."
Jerry, who had been diagnosed with autism when he was 4, had been hanging out with his grandma under a pavilion near the beach, where she was preparing lunch. He was hungry -- like always -- and kept bugging her about when the meal would be ready.
"I finally told him, 'Jerry, go play with the girls in the water. I'll call you when lunch is ready.' ... I wish I would have just let him stay," Loida said, breaking down in tears again.
She watched her grandson trudge slowly toward the water in the horseshoe-shaped bay, stopping occasionally to pick up a shell on the beach. Then she refocused her attention on the grill full of steaks, bratwurst, hamburgers and hotdogs. Dave stayed near Loida, helping around the campsite. They could hear the kids splashing, laughing and playing. But less than 10 minutes after Jerry had entered the water, the sounds of fun and frolic abruptly changed to shrieks of horror.
Dave and Loida looked toward their grandchildren. Alyssa was screaming and pointing. Myya frantically tried to run through the water toward them. And Jerry ...
Jerry had disappeared!
Pushed by fear and primal instinct, Dave, who turns 65 in October, started sprinting toward the water at a pace he would have had trouble matching even 30 years ago. He entered the lake still fully clothed. He knew from reading safety articles he'd designed that wearing clothes in the water could weigh a person down and become a drowning hazard. But that was the furthest thing from his mind at that moment. His frenzied assault on the water only came with one frantic thought: Get to Jerry fast!
"I had difficulty moving through the water; my legs and my lungs were burning," Dave said. "But I could hear the girls screaming, 'Jerry went under! Jerry went under!' And sheer panic helped me fight through the exhaustion."
As he reached the hysterical teens, whose shrieking and crying made them almost inaudible, he shouted, "Where is he?!" The girls pointed to where Jerry had submerged, and Dave dove into the dark water.
"I kept going under water but was having no luck," he said. "The lake was already murky, but it had gotten even worse because the sand was all churned up from where they had been playing. I couldn't see a thing."
Dave searched the surface of the water for bubbles or any other signs of where his grandson might be. He could still hear the girls sobbing uncontrollably and Loida, who also had entered the lake, screaming, "Find him! Oh God, find him!"
"I'm in the water up past my chin, and I'm not that great a swimmer," Dave said. "I'm not seeing or feeling a thing. So I start hollering for help."
Not that many people were at the lake that day, though. As a matter of fact, when the family had pulled into the picturesque marina, Loida had boasted to her grandson, "Look, Jerry, this is our lake! We have it all to ourselves."
The Stack's 17-year-old son, Lawrence, who had been on a walk with his girlfriend, suddenly arrived at the shoreline on a dead run as he had heard the commotion. When his parents told him Jerry had gone under, Lawrence swam out to the area where his nephew had disappeared and dove again and again. Meanwhile, two workers from the boat docks heard the family's cries for help and brought out a boat and a long pole to search the lake bottom. Then a young lady showed up and also joined the search by diving into the lake.
At that point, a physically and emotionally exhausted Dave huddled in the water with his wailing wife and granddaughters.
"I was sick with fear, worry, grief and a feeling of total helplessness," Dave said. "I had to console my wife and try to get the kids to come in so no one else would drown."
He found the word too horrific to verbalize. But it had been 15 or 20 minutes since Jerry had disappeared in the dark waters. And Dave knew it was impossible for someone to hold his breath for that long.
Lawrence, who had also jumped in the water fully clothed, had made too many desperate dives to count. His parents realized he'd become dangerously fatigued and were relieved to see the marina workers throw a life preserver to him.
The young woman also had to stop her search, and the two men in the boat had turned up no signs of their grandson.
Dave held his distraught wife and could barely whisper the words ... "He's gone."
"No!" Loida screamed at the top of her lungs. "He was just there! He was just right there! I can see it! Not my Jerry!"
Not Jerry, who was shy but always happy.
Not Jerry, who even as a teenager still got excited to see his grandparents.
Not Jerry, who would talk his grandpa's ears off about foreign languages and carried around tattered books on Japanese, Russian, French, German, Filipino, Latin, Vietnamese and more.
Not Jerry who had a fascination with electronics and even as a young boy would hang out with grandma in the kitchen and reprogram her microwave oven.
Not Jerry, who loved his grandma's pancakes so much she could hardly cook them fast enough to keep up as he gobbled them down.
"It was like a nightmare when we couldn't find him," said Loida, her hand trembling as she wiped her eyes. "I thought heaven had collapsed on me."
As rescue divers arrived and began scouring the lake bottom, Dave and Loida faced the unthinkable task of having to tell their 35-year-old daughter, Melanie, that they'd lost her only son.
Melanie arrived at the lake nearly two hours later. Overcome with grief, she feinted and collapsed near the water's edge as her family tried to comfort her. It took two and a half hours to find Jerry's body.
"When the divers carried him out of the lake, he just looked like he was sleeping," Dave said. "He was pale, but other than that he looked perfect. So even though deep down you know it's impossible, your mind starts playing tricks on you. ... There's that flicker of hope that maybe he will take a breath."
But reality would soon set in.
The divers worked on Jerry for several minutes before finally giving up and pronouncing him dead.
Through anguished moans, Melanie cried, "My baby!"
Then she collapsed again.
"That's a scene my wife and I will probably live with until we take our last breath," Dave added, as his voice cracked and he hung his head, looking down at the floor. "We are responsible. Our daughter left Jerry in our care, and we were supposed to return him safely."
Melanie never lashed out at her parents ... never blamed them, according to Dave.
"But deep down we know she probably feels we could have done some things better to protect her son," he admitted. "We have beaten ourselves up over the years. We carry an incredible amount of guilt about the things we should have done differently."
That's one of the reasons they wanted to open up about the drowning.
"For a couple of years, we were too traumatized -- too tormented -- to talk about it," Dave said. "Now we want to help ensure what happened to us doesn't happen to others. We owe that to Melanie ... to Jerry."
Dave said the first regret they have begins long before they ever made that last haunting trip to the lake.
"I wish we would have taught them to swim," he said. "They had swim lessons, and I worked with them a little when they were younger, but they never really got proficient with it. And my wife and I were never good swimmers either."
He also wishes they had taken flotation devices.
"Especially in lakes, where there can be hidden drop-offs and visibility in the water can be poor, it's a good idea to have flotation devices," Dave said. "The girls told me that Jerry had been standing there one minute, but then hit a spot where he couldn't keep his head above water and panicked. Myya tried to grab him, but he slipped through her fingers. I can't imagine the terror she and her brother must have felt at that moment."
Next, he laments not talking to the teens to remind them about some of the risks and dangers before they stepped in the water.
"That's a conversation I wish we would have had," he said. "I wish I would have told them to look out for each other, stay away from the deep end and no horseplay. They had definitely gotten too close to the deep part of the marked area, and they had been horsing around, taking some risks they shouldn't have been with their limited swimming ability."
Most of all, Dave and Loida wish they had never gotten distracted preparing lunch and complacent because the children had gotten older.
"At least one of us should have stayed with the kids and kept a closer eye on them," Dave said. "We could have told them when they were getting too far out. We could have reacted faster if something did happen. Things can go so wrong, so fast.
In the water, even adults should have a buddy looking out for them."
Not long after Jerry's death, a 21-year-old co-worker of Loida's also drowned in Canyon Lake. Of the more than 4,000 U.S. people who drown each year, victims age 13 or older tend to lose their lives in lakes, oceans, rivers and streams, according to the Aquatic Safety Division of the American Safety and Health Institute.
"I get knots in my stomach every time I hear someone is going to the lake," Loida said, holding her mid-section. "I always ask them, 'Do you have life vests?' A lot do but only for the little kids. I tell them you need them for the big kids too."
Loida has struggled to find peace.
"I was angry with God and cursed that damn lake," she said.
But most of all, she was angry with herself.
"My husband, my kids, my friends, my pastor, doctors ... they all say I couldn't have known what would happen when I sent Jerry to go play in the water. But the moment plays over and over in my head like a broken record," she said. "I still have nightmares about it. ... I miss him so much."
Dave said that while the tragedy "knocked them down," he and his wife are slowly healing and are trying to honor Jerry's memory by focusing on the happy times they had together and sharing their story to help others avoid the same fate.
"Working at this job in safety and doing so many stories on tragedies people suffer, I now understand more what they go through," he said. "But I never thought for a second that my family would become one of those stories. ... I never want to be a part of one again."