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Drowning victims' moms hope Umpqua River rescue stations save lives

ROSEBURG — After two Roseburg High School students drowned in the Umpqua River on Memorial Day weekend last year, Roseburg Rotary President Sue Van Volkenburg was inspired to do something to make the river a safer place.

She worked with the YMCA and RHS Interact Club to create six new river rescue stations, each with a life-saving ring, rope and instructions. The stations will be located at different spots along the river, at Templin Park, Stewart Park, River Forks Park, Amacher Park, Red Beach and Whistler's Bend.

Two of the stations will have memorials dedicated to the RHS students, Dustin Conopa and Froylan Carrion, and another will be dedicated to Joshua Hartley, a Douglas High School student who died after jumping into the Sandy River last July.

The boys' mothers are involved in the river rescue project as well, The News-Review reported (http://bit.ly/1WiRnzw).

"I was starting to lose hope when Sue came up to us and talked about the rescue stations and classes," said Froylan's mother, Lucia Carrion. "For me, it's really awesome because I didn't want my son to die in vain."

Lonni Conopa, mother of Dustin, said her son would be proud that his death had inspired something to help others.

"Dustin was about making a change and impacting people's lives," Conopa said. "He would do anything to make a difference in people's lives, and if this could potentially save someone's life, he would almost think it was worth it."

Hartley's mother, Jennifer Williams, said she had wanted to do something to raise awareness about water safety, and Van Volkenburg's idea was a good opportunity for her to help.

"I think it's a really great idea. It's nice to have a place where he's going to be remembered," Williams said, adding that the memorial dedication with his picture will add a personal side to the station. "I think he would be happy this is what we're doing."

Carrion said the stations will be a way for the community to remember the boys.

"We will all remember him," Carrion said of her son. "It's a beautiful thing to have him around, like he's not totally gone, he's still around us."

She added that she hopes the stations will also encourage people to respect nature.

"Every year there are drownings on the river," Van Volkenburg said, adding that swimmers often don't realize that cold water can make their muscles cramp, debilitating them.

In conjunction with the rescue stations, the team is organizing water safety classes at local schools to help students understand the dangers of the river.

RHS Interact made a water safety video that shows how to use the life-saving ring to pull someone to safety. For example, Van Volkenburg said it's important to throw the ring past the drowning victims instead of directly at them.

"Our goal is to save lives," Van Volkenburg said. "We will do this by continuing to educate the public on the hazards of the river and to make more river rescue stations where there is a need."

Williams said she hopes to raise awareness so when people see the stations, they're reminded of the dangers of the water and think before they go swimming.

She advises people to check the conditions before they get in the water.

"If Josh had taken two minutes to check his surroundings, he might still be here," Williams said. She wants there to be more education and training for kids and their teachers who supervise field trips near the river.

Carrion said swimmers should remember that they are not invincible, and they should learn about water temperature, currents and how much the body can take.

"The river changes every year," Conopa said. "What may have been a safe swimming hole last summer might not be this summer."

Even if it's 85 degrees outside, the water temperature could be much colder, as it was when Dustin and Froylan tried to swim across the river a year ago.

Conopa also wanted to remind swimmers that physical strength doesn't mean survival.

"Dusty was incredibly strong, he was going to be a Navy Seal after high school," she said. "He was very physically fit, but when the water's that cold, it doesn't matter."

An official unveiling of the river rescue stations will take place at 3 p.m. May 31 at River Forks Park, where the organizers will present the families with their sons' dedication plaques.

Carrion and Conopa both planned to attend Water Safety Day at Stewart Park to educate the public and share their advice.

The boys' families will help maintain their respective rescue stations every month, and Van Volkenburg said she hopes other families will adopt the other stations. This is an ongoing project, and Van Volkenburg said she encourages people to let her know of locations where a station is needed.

Lonni Conopa and Lucia Carrion, both of Roseburg, and Jennifer Williamsm of Winston, stand near a future site of a river rescue station at River Forks Park in Roseburg. Six such stations are planned at various parks along the Umpqua River. Michael Sullivan /The News-Review via AP