SHREVEPORT, La. — DeKendrix Warner was splashing around in the waist-high waters of the Red River with his cousins and friends, trying to escape the oppressive Louisiana heat, when he stepped off a slippery ledge – and was plunged into water 25-feet deep.
As the 15-year-old kicked and flailed, one cousin rushed to help – and found himself plummeting down the severe drop-off. Then another.
In all, six teenagers tried to save DeKendrix – and each other – but none could swim. Their relatives, all nonswimmers, looked on helplessly as the teens screamed out for help. Six vanished and drowned Monday; DeKendrix was rescued by a bystander.
"I stepped and I started drowning," the boy told The Associated Press Tuesday, speaking in a low voice outside his inner-city Shreveport home, a one-story white clapboard structure with peeling green trim and an unkempt yard.
It had started out as a typical summer family get-together – a large group of relatives and friends, including about 20 children, gathered on a sandy shore near the river's bank for an afternoon of swimming and barbecue.
They didn't even have time to set up the grill before tragedy struck.
"It's hard when you can't save your kids," said Maude Warner, whose 13-year-old daughter Takeitha and sons 14-year-old JaMarcus and 17-year-old JaTavious were among those who drowned.
"It's hard when you just see your kids drowning and you can't save them," she told KTBS TV.
The other victims were three brothers: 18-year-old Litrelle Stewart, 17-year-old LaDairus and 15-year-old Latevin.
The area where the drownings occurred is near a public park, but it's not a designated recreational or swimming area and no lifeguards are on duty. The spot is frequented by swimmers and fishermen, who must walk through woods along a path to reach the river. The city had just dug a trench to limit access to it.
"The river is a dangerous place. It's no place to even put your foot in if you don't know how to swim," said Shreveport Fire Chief Brian Crawford.
The lone life jacket nearby was thrown to the victims, but none could reach it.
The drownings highlight an unsettling statistic among African-Americans like the teens who died: 69 percent of black children have little or no swimming ability, compared to 41.8 percent of white children, according to a study released last spring by the sports governing body USA Swimming.
And African-Americans drown at a rate 20 percent higher than whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For decades, segregation limited the access of black people to public and private pools and the disparity continues because many poor and working class children still have limited access to pools or instruction.
Monday's tragedy "confirms what we are finding – this continuing cycle of people not knowing how to swim and their children not knowing how to swim and still being around water," said Sue Anderson, USA Swimming's Director of Programs and Services.
Parental fear and lack of parental encouragement were the top two reasons children and parents gave for not swimming, Anderson said, adding that fear trumped any financial limitations in the study.
"Adults seem to pass their fear of water onto their children," she said. "There seems to be a culture that says, 'Its a scary environment don't go there.'"
Marilyn Robinson, a friend of the families, was among the adults who watched helplessly as the victims went under.
"None of us could swim," Robinson told The Shreveport Times. "They were yelling 'Help me, help me! Somebody please help me!' It was nothing I could do but watch them drown one by one."
Taiwon Simpson, a friend of the victims, also could do nothing.
"The wave pushed them back that way. They hollered for help and they started going down," he told AP Television News.
About 30 feet away, 22-year-old Christopher Patlan was hanging out with his friends when he heard screams and ran toward the river. By then, all the teens were struggling, he said. He jumped in and ended up closest to DeKendrix.
"Everything happened so fast. It was like a wreck," said Patlan, who is white and Hispanic and took swimming lessons as a youngster. By the time he dragged DeKendrix to safety, the rest of the teens had vanished.
DeKendrix pleaded with Patlan "to go help my cousin," as he was being saved, but it was too late.
Korey Prest said he tried in vain to save another victim. "He slipped out of my hands. I couldn't feel him no more," he said.
After a more than two-hour search, divers discovered the teens' bodies at nightfall, in a muddy 30-foot-deep section of the river about 20 feet from where they disappeared. The murky water hindered the divers, who sectioned off sections of the river as they meticulously searched the bottom.
At their Shreveport neighborhood on Tuesday, family and friends gathered to offer condolences, hugging one another and holding an impromptu prayer vigil.
"These are some of the greatest kids in the world," said the Rev. Emmitt Welch, who knew all the victims in his work as a Baptist youth minister. "I mean when you think about the ideal children, these kids are wonderful."
Nearby, DeKendrix leaned against a pole, the lone survivor plucking nervously at his purple T-shirt, and sighed.
Associated Press writer Lisa Orkin Emmanuel in Miami contributed to this report.