Boy’s death raises concerns about canal safety

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

TUCUMCARI — On the city block adjacent to First Street and Charles Avenue lies a fence enclosing an irrigation canal. Many in Tucumcari now think of it as the place where they came to hope and pray Agustin “Augie” Montiel would survive.

In the place of those people are now flowers and posters remembering Augie, who was found inside the canal nearly 24 hours after first being sucked in by an undercurrent with 15-year-old Gabriel Jones on Thursday night.

Jones was rescued nearly an hour later, but Montiel, 12, was not. Less than a week later, Tucumcari is trying to recover from the loss of the Tucumcari Elementary School fifth-grader.

Montiel’s death is being investigated, Tucumcari Police Chief Larry Ham said, and the department is following standard procedure.

While many wait for answers, members of Montiel’s family have questions.

Crestina Rodriquez, Montiel’s sister, feels her brother’s death should be a wake-up call to the city in the emergency services offered and the measures to prevent a future accident.

“My brother’s death can’t be in vain,” Rodriquez said. “My brother hasn’t been the first one in there (the draining ditch), and he won’t be the last unless we get something changed. We need a dive team. We need someone that can help. We can’t sit here for hours waiting for something to happen.”

The Tucumcari Police Department and New Mexico State Police stationed in Tucumcari do not have trained divers in their department. Instead, Ham said, the NMSP has divers across the state who are assigned to certain areas in such emergencies.

“If there was a drowning at Conchas (Dam) or Ute (Lake), the same thing would have happened,” Ham said. “It would have taken them three hours (to respond).”

The irrigation canal has two exposed areas in the city. Each has a fence around the area with signs warning about the dangers of swimming. Also, the canals have concrete basins with the words, “Stay Alive by Staying Out” painted on the sides.

Children can still easily get in through the fence, and that concerns Rodriquez.

“It wasn’t secure enough,” Rodriquez said. “We had plenty of community members (at the scene), but none of them were trained. We need more help there. I can’t stress that enough.”

Tucumcari Mayor Mary Mayfield said there was nothing on the agenda of Thursday’s City Commission meeting regarding the incident, but she expects commissioners will have something to say in the commissioner items portion of the meeting.

“We’re all so concerned. Any time we lose a life in Tucumcari, we’re devastated for the whole community. One young man was saved. I’m sorry both of them couldn’t have been.”

Along with the flowers and posters, Mayfield said a good complement would be additional warnings.

Ham said he understands the concerns, but feels the canal has adequate warning.

“At this point, I would say there is adequate fencing and signage,” Ham said. “Perhaps some community education may be appropriate. As far as doing anything to the canal, I think the only thing they’d be able to do is enclose the entire canal (within city limits) … and that would be extremely expensive.”

Throughout the ordeal, local counselors have been on call in case family members or friends need them. A.C. Chavarria, the operations officer for TeamBuilders in Tucumcari, said his office is working with Mesa Counseling in the city and has other counselors on standby in various TeamBuilders offices across the state.

“There were a lot of people affected,” Chavarria said. “For a lot of them, it may take time to process. I’m sure there will be some more people that need help, and I’ll be there.”

In addition to many family, friends and onlookers, the scene Thursday night and Friday morning also included counselors letting people know help was available. Chavarria said he didn’t even have to ask his counselors in many cases.

“People just step up and say, ‘I want to help,’” Chavarria said. “It’s really nice to see a community come together.”