As Charles Thornton prepared for a visit from his family Wednesday morning to celebrate the Fourth of July at his home on Still Waters Campground, caution was at the forefront of his mind.
The night before, authorities recovered the body of 14-year-old Landon Alexander Smith, of Lawrenceburg, from the waters of Elkhorn Creek after a fatal incident. With Thornton's grandchildren as young as 14 years old themselves, his whole family would be practicing extreme vigilance, he said.
“If anybody goes near the creek, I want a life jacket on them,” he said. “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to them.”
Thornton has lived at Still Waters Campground for several years and canoed in Elkhorn Creek as a child. While the lolling waters of the creek can appear inviting, a situation can become serious without notice, he said.
“There’s a lot of danger on that creek,” Thornton said. “Anything can happen at any given time.”
Thornton was among several wary residents Wednesday following the teenager's death, which authorities believe to be an accidental.
Franklin County Coroner Will Harrod, in a news release Wednesday morning, reported that the preliminary cause of death is drowning.
"Around 5:30 p.m. (Tuesday) the young man went missing after diving into the creek off of a boat ramp," Harrod said in the statement. "He was pronounced deceased at 8:30 p.m. on scene."
Harrod said an autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday, but the official results will not be available for several weeks.
The Franklin County Sheriff's Office has opened a joint investigation into the death along with the Kentucky Department Fish and Wildlife.
Sheriff Chris Quire said his office was the first to receive a 911 call about a possible drowning at about 5:30 p.m. near the boat ramp at the campground on Strohmeier Road in the northern part of the county. Officers began canvassing the area and speaking with possible witnesses on land, Quire said, while water rescue units were en route. He said that the investigation has so far revealed that a day of family fun took a tragic turn.
“The family is tore up, and rightfully so,” Quire said. “It sounds like they were going for a swim. I don’t think anybody saw when the child went under. It just sounds like a horrible accident.”
Quire said that while FCSO is conducting a death investigation, its role is limited to what happened on land leading up to the incident. Fish and Wildlife authorities will investigate what occurred in the water, he said.
Kevin Kelly, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife department, said that the Smith family had arrived earlier in the day to Still Waters Campground when Landon and his younger brother decided to go for a swim.
"They ran down to the boat ramp, and Landon jumped in and did not emerge," Kelly said.
Kelly said that Fish and Wildlife's investigation in ongoing, and authorities will be looking at conditions of the water at the time of the incident as well as underwater topography.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the visitor campgrounds at Still Waters had yet to fill out as Jackie Sims, a nearby resident, looked out from her porch. She said that the campground usually begins to fill out later in the day as people get off work and rush to find a spot, but this holiday might be different in light of Tuesday night's tragedy.
“I hope they come on and have a good time,” Sims said of the visitors. “But with this horrible thing happening so recently, it’s hard to tell whether they will or not.”
Sims said she has friends coming into town from Tennessee to stay with her and celebrate Independence Day on the creek, and they were questioning the safety of the creek. She said that if they make the trip, they will all be on high alert, with children’s safety especially in mind.
“We’re going to be watching them closely,” Sims said. “I’m terrified of the water, so I won’t be letting them near it.”
Landon, the son of Christopher and Savannah Smith, would have entered his freshman year at Anderson County High School in the fall semester. He was a soccer player at Anderson Middle School.
Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Gash Memorial Chapel in Lawrenceburg. Visitation will be from 3-8 p.m. Monday and from 9 a.m. until service time Tuesday.