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Colorado woman brings "loaner" life vests at lake where her son drowned without one

Standing on the same shore she walked for weeks as searchers tried to locate the body of her son, Pamela Barrett made available to everyone else the item that quite likely would have saved him.

Barrett joined representatives from Colorado Parks and Wildlife on Tuesday to unveil a pair of boxes filled with 'loaner' life jackets now open at Miramonte Reservoir. 

"I come out here and see people on paddleboards and what not, from young kids to older people, and it makes me cringe now seeing someone out there without a life jacket," Barrett stated in a CPW press release. "I guess I never thought about it before Tanner's accident. When you experience something like that, I feel like I'm the boat safety police now or something. From that aspect, these stations couldn't be a better thing to have at this lake. It's amazing, I love it, and I just hope they get used."  

Pamela Barrett, left, stands next to a San Miguel County Sheriff's deputy. On Tuesday, Barrett announced the public availability of 'loaner' life jackets at Miramonte Reservoir near Norwood. Barrett's son passed away six years ago at the lake while kayaking. He was not wearing a life vest. Brown was involved in the search effort.  Pamela Barrett

Barrett's son, Tanner Chestnut, was on the same lake in 2018 when his kayak overturned. Searchers failed to find him. 

It was one of my first callouts of my career," said Grant Brown, now CPW's Boating Safety Program Manager. "We threw a lot of resources at it, a lot of counties assisted, and we were unsuccessful. We spent hours looking at sonar here for weeks. Every time, we saw the family standing right here on the boat ramp, and each time you just wanted to bring them some closure."  

Chestnut was 21 at the time of his death. His body was found by an angler several weeks after he went missing. 

Tanner Chestnut in an undated photo.  Pamela Barrett

"A couple years after his accident, I couldn't come up here," Barrett, a resident of nearby Norwood, said. "Then it got to a point where I needed some more information. That's when I started reaching out to everybody I knew who was a big part of the search." 

She and Brown landed on the idea of the loaner life jackets. Each box at Miramonte has eight vests in it: four for adults and four sized for children. CPW will restock the boxes if jackets become damaged or go missing. Barrett was also given a supply of the life jackets to resupply the boxes.

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"We know life jackets are so important," Brown said. "If this station saves even one life, that's worth it. This year, we've already had 18 water-related deaths in Colorado, and it's not even Father's Day yet. That's not good. Hopefully, getting some life jackets out here and some awareness can help stem that a bit."  

There were 32 water-related deaths in Colorado in 2023 and a state record 42 in 2022.   

The life jacket loaner stations at Miramonte are the first at a CPW State Wildlife Area. CPW manages more than 350 State Wildlife Areas across Colorado.

CPW has more than 40 life jacket loaner stations located across its 43 state parks.

Compared to state parks which cater to many forms of human recreation, State Wildlife Areas focus on recreation that is more wildlife-centric, such as hunting, fishing and bird watching. 

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"People think we are the fun police when we ask them to wear their PFD," Brown said. "We want you to have fun. Boating and paddling are fun. We don't want people to be afraid. But you have to respect the water and the conditions. We don't want other families to have to go through what this family has gone through."

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Boating Safety Program Manager Grant Brown poses with one of the life jackets now available to water enthusiasts at Miramonte Reservoir near Norwood. Colorado Parks & Wildlife

In Colorado, boaters must carry one wearable PFD (personal floatation device) for each person on board. If the boat is more than 16 feet in length, an additional throwable device is required. Children 12 years of age and younger are required to wear a PFD whenever their vessel is on the water, except when they are in an enclosed cabin or below deck. All required PFDs must be U.S. Coast Guard-approved, readily available to passengers and in good condition. Each must be the proper size to fit the person for whom they are intended.

While regulations only require adults to have a life jacket with them aboard their vessel but do not require them to be worn, CPW has seen many incidents in which people become separated from their boat, kayak or paddleboard and are not able to retrieve their PFD before being in danger.

"This dedication ceremony brings that home," Brown continued. "When you decide whether or not to put on that PFD, it's not just a personal responsibility issue. When you drown, it affects your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents who all have to deal with you suddenly being taken from them. It's so sudden, and oftentimes it is witnessed by your friends and family who are there trying to help, and then you're gone in seconds. Give yourself a chance to be rescued, wear the life jacket."

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