Fourteen-year-old B.J. Griffin tried to save his friends, but they slipped one after another under the murky waters of the Biloxi River.
“The current wasn’t all that bad,” B.J. told the Sun Herald on Friday afternoon. “I just think they were panicking and didn’t know what to do.”
The boys went to the river Thursday afternoon to cool off.
Javonte Johnson, Travis Roberson Jr. and Eric Smith Jr. were best friends, always together in their free time, Javonte’s mother said. B.J. often joined the group.
All four lived in a tight-knit corner of three- and four-bedroom homes in the sprawling Pelican Landing community in Gulfport and attended North Gulfport Middle School together. Javonte, Travis and Eric attended church together on Sundays at the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center church.
Eric and Javonte would have been entering the eighth grade there Thursday, while Travis was about to become a freshman at Harrison Central High.
“These boys were amazing,” said Lt. Sonya Smith of the Salvation Army, who knew them well. “They died helping each other and that’s how they lived their lives.”
Fun turns deadly
They had been to the river together many times. B.J. said all four could swim, although some better than others. The river is shallow along the sandy bank of Dedeaux Park, where people can be found swimming and playing daily in the summer.
But the river quickly drops to deceptive depths. B.J. said he warned the boys the water was deep before they got into the area where Eric started having trouble.
Eric was going under. B.J. was trying to push him back to the surface. Travis tried to help, too, but was soon grasping for B.J. to avoid sinking, B.J. said. At one point, Javonte was under the water clutching B.J.’s leg.
“I was just treading water,” he said, “trying to get them.” B.J. remembers thrashing around for about three minutes before he had to head for the shallows to catch his breath. All three boys had disappeared.
Emergency responders found the bodies before dark. The Gulfport Fire Department, assisted by a number of agencies, dispatched a dive team. Harrison County took an underwater drone to the river. Searchers also had sonar, said Gulfport Fire Chief Mike Beyerstedt.
“For me, the big thing was I didn’t want somebody to have to be sitting on the banks of the river that night with their child in the water,” Beyerstedt said Friday.
Community in mourning
B.J. was home with his family Friday afternoon. His older brother, 17-year-old Nathaniel Walburn, said he thinks Dedeaux Park needs to be closed.
A Gulfport man drowned in the same spot May 19, Harrison County Coroner Brian Switzer said, but it was after a heavy rain with strong currents. Anthony Lewellyn managed to get struggling children ashore before he went under.
Switzer is talking with Gulfport officials about securing life preservers to trees at the park so they can be thrown out to anyone struggling in the water.
Nathaniel doesn’t think that’s enough. “It needs to be shut down,” he said firmly. “It needs to be dealt with. They need to better our community and do something so we can have somewhere to go and have fun.”
Two girls at Pelican Landing said they almost drowned in the river several weeks ago. One of them said a man pulled her out.
They described all three of the boys as their brothers. They said Eric and Travis in particular were protectors, confronting anyone who picked on them.
The boys’ friends said Eric was always making them laugh, while Javonte was laid back, and Travis was outgoing and kind.
Javonte’s mother, Alicia Brown, was trying to come to grips with her loss Friday afternoon, seated in the den of her family’s home.
“He was a good boy,” Brown said. “He never gave me any trouble. He loved playing ball and hanging out with his friends.” His other passions were the video game Fortnite and, above all, church.
He has been going to church since he was a small child. Even so, he started getting in trouble at school a couple of years ago, she said. Getting involved with the Salvation Army helped him straighten up.
The Salvation Army picked up Javonte and the other teems for church and Sunday school on Sundays, and for a character building program on Wednesday nights. Smith said six boys who grew up together in the neighborhood attended the church, but the other three had not gone swimming Thursday.
The Kroc Center was having a prayer service for the boys Friday evening, and the subdivision was planning a candlelight vigil and balloon release a few hours later, at 7 p.m.
Javonte “knew the Lord, he really did,” his mother said. Her son had no less than three Bibles in his room.
Brown was expecting Lt. Smith at the house Friday afternoon. Smith was coming to pick up the church suit Javonte loved, the one he would be buried in.