On the edge of the Rio Grande, next to the Angostura Dam, Randy the test dummy was causing a problem.
The 165-pound doll – half-submerged in the cold water – refused to float farther into the river despite prods with sticks by officials from the Bernalillo County Aquatics Program.
No, it wasn’t a case of dummycide. Randy had a life jacket. But officials needed him to be farther out to complete the lifesaving demonstration.
Officers from the Albuquerque open space police cruised around in a buzzing hovercraft, ready to rescue the man-shaped lump of rubber. Fourth-graders from nearby Algodones Elementary School, mud stuck on their shoes, watched and waited.
Randy’s well-designed and slightly delayed doom was a warning: The greater Albuquerque area’s irrigation season began Tuesday, and irrigation ditches will be filling with water that can prove dangerous to the unwary.
“It’s hard to think about drowning right now, but it is that time of year,” said Joan Griffin, coordinator of the Ditch and Water Safety Task Force, a nonprofit organization that orchestrated Randy’s rescue to educate people about ditch safety. “It’s been a problem in the past.”
Griffin said water and ditches are a dangerous mix. The banks and base become slick. There’s a strong current. Tangled debris makes an efficient human trap. All in all, it’s a recipe for drowning, she said.
Another threat is posed by flash floods – brought on by warming weather – in the arroyos that move water from the mountains to the river, Griffin said.
“The water will move as fast as 50 miles per hour,” she said. “If you get caught in a flash flood, the odds of surviving are very slim.”
Although ditches claimed no drowning victims in 2004, two people have drowned in them since the late 1980s, the last in 1993, Griffin said.
Up until the late 1980s, there were two to six drownings a year, she said, but the rate has dropped down to about one every five years.
If someone should see a person caught in a ditch, the best thing to do is immediately call 911 and not attempt to rescue the victim, Griffin said.
Randy finally made it into the river after catching a ride on the hovercraft. About 40 feet from shore, officials dumped him overboard, where he floated somewhat inelegantly. The hovercraft sped away, made a U-turn and headed back for the rescue. In seconds, Randy once again flopped across the hovercraft’s deck to a burst of applause from the students and their teachers.
“That was really neat,” said Lisa Anzures, who escorted her class of fourth-graders to the demonstration. “It’s one thing to tell the kids, but to actually see it – it’s more effective.”