Father works to save lives after son's drowning Father works to save lives after son's drowning

Father works to save lives after son's drowning

Craig Keese launched free life jacket loan program with Duke Energy on Carolinas lakes


With summer boating season, Craig Keese is on a mission to make sure everyone wears a life jacket.

For years, Duke Energy has worked with Keese and his wife, Jenny, to loan life jackets to those who don’t have them. Their son, Brian, and his 8-year-old son, Nathan, drowned in a boating accident in Missouri in 2010. Neither was wearing a life jacket when their boat capsized on a lake in stormy weather.

A child’s life jacket was found in the boat.

The life jacket loaner program has been a Keese family effort ever since. 

“I’ll be dedicated to this project until I die,” said Keese, an agricultural-chemical executive from Greenville, S.C. “I’m very appreciative and pleased with Duke Energy’s response. This is a journey, and there’s a lot of miles to cover.”

Life jacket loaner sites

You can borrow a life jacket for free at more than 20 lakes, rivers and creeks in North and South Carolina. Click here for a complete list of locations. 

Life jacket loaner stations are at 16 Duke Energy locations on lakes in the Carolinas near hydroelectric facilities and about 20 sites apart from Duke Energy. The latest station was added last summer at the Pines Recreation Area on Lake Glenville near Cashiers, N.C. Seven more stations are planned in the Carolinas.

Public safety agencies and nonprofit groups in other parts of the country operate similar programs.

Duke started its effort with Keese in 2012 after he approached the company. He searched for answers and struggled for a way to make sense of the tragedy. He found solace in starting the life jacket program.

He knows people often shrug off the idea of wearing a jacket thinking they don’t need one. Every day, about 10 people die from accidental drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger.

“They say, ‘I’ve been around boating forever. I know all of this stuff,’” he said. “But it’s pretty straightforward – life jackets are essential.” 

Keese started a loaner program at several Missouri lakes, and when the family relocated to South Carolina, they initiated another program.

Partnering with Keese to save lives has been a perfect fit for Duke, said Scott Jolley, a public safety and recreation planning project manager who runs the loaner program. Safety is a top priority for the company, he said, and Keese’s mission meshed with Duke’s philosophy on prevention. 

Duke builds the loaner stations and buys most of the jackets, sometimes with help from donors and community groups. Pictures of Keese’s son and grandson grace the loaner boards, a poignant reminder of what can happen.

The jackets come in a variety of sizes. Visitors borrow them on the honor system for free and then return them to the kiosk. Occasionally, borrowers keep the jackets but it’s not a big problem.  

Jolley said he believes the program is saving lives in the face of disturbing developments in the past few years.  

“I don’t know why, but there seems to be a national trend of people getting into the water who can’t swim,” he said. He’s seen it time and time again on the lakes in Duke’s territory.

He urges people to take swimming lessons and carefully explore the bottom before wading or jumping into the water.

Also, keep a life line with a throw ring nearby which you can throw out to a swimmer who may appear to be in trouble, he said.He urges people to take swimming lessons and carefully explore the bottom before wading or jumping into the water.

Life jackets work even better.

“We encourage visitors to take advantage of the loaner jackets,” Jolley said. “They can be borrowed for free, and they could help save a life.”Life jackets work even better.

Tips for staying safe on the water:

  • Never swim alone or at night, and let someone know where you are.
  • The lake bottom is not visible, and depth changes unexpectedly, so look twice before jumping in.
  • Lake temperature changes, currents and underwater hazards make lakes on a river particularly dangerous. Remember that health conditions, fatigue and lake temperature changes can cause cramping.
  • Alcohol causes dehydration, impairs swimming skills and judgment.
  • Keep a life line with a throw ring nearby for a swimmer in trouble.
  • Only swim and dive in designated areas.
  • Check weather and water conditions before swimming.

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