A profound sorrow hangs heavy across a series of tight-knit communities in southwest Georgia after the tragic loss of a popular high-school junior who drowned while duck hunting on Lake Seminole.
Southwest Georgia Academy multi-sport athlete Matthew Jernigan, 17, drowned on the morning of Jan. 7 after the boat carrying him and classmates Payson Trawick and Thomas Vines sank in frigid waters.
Seminole County Sheriff Heath Elliott said the boys were attempting to retrieve a duck when the boat equipped with tiller steering turned too quickly, and a rush of water swamped the boat.
He said Payson and Thomas grabbed onto a decoy bag and were able to swim their way to an island. He said the two boys said they last saw Matthew clinging to a gas can.
The sheriff said there are conflicting reports that none of the boys were wearing lifejackets or that one of the boys may have been wearing one.
Payson and Thomas used a cell phone to call 911 once they reached the island.
An intense search that included 15 boats, three airplanes, three helicopters and dozens of volunteers came to a tragic conclusion later that afternoon when Matthew’s body was found 100 feet from where the boat sank. The boys had been hunting in the vicinity of Fairchild Landing.
Southwest Georgia Academy is a private school located in Damascus in Early County. It has grades K-12. It is small school where all the students know one another, said Headmaster Matt Dalrymple.
“Payson and Thomas are back at school and physically okay,” he said. “But like everyone else they are trying to find ways to deal with this.”
Matthew is survived by his parents Alex and Nancy Jernigan. His birth mother Lori Brindley Jernigan died in an automobile accident several years ago, Dalrymple said.
Dalrymple said his school was closed on Jan. 7 because of the extreme cold. The mercury dipped to 13 degrees that morning. The boys saw the day off from school as an opportunity to go to Lake Seminole and hunt ducks. All three of the boys were members of a duck-hunting social-media site called Quacker Smackers, a group co-founded by one of the boy’s cousins.
The lake’s water temperature was in the mid 40s at the time of the accident. One online post said the boys needed help launching the boat that morning because their boat was frozen to the trailer.
Dalrymple said the school lost a remarkable student and an athlete that was loved by everyone. On the day following Matthew’s death, the school held an assembly for middle-school and high-school students. The school had counselors, youth ministers and pastors on campus to help students with their grieving process.
“Matt had a very good attitude about everything, and he was always in a good mood,” the headmaster said. “He was always smiling, and he was always respectful to everyone.
“When he talked to you, he looked you right in the eye. A lot of kids don’t do that.”
Matthew was a pitcher and a shortstop in baseball, and that was his best sport, Dalrymple said. He was also a starter on the football team and played on the basketball team. He was involved in numerous school activities.
Dalrymple said nothing in an administrator’s training prepares you for such a tragedy.
“You can’t prepare for it,” he said. “It’s difficult.
“It has been a blessing to watch all of these students to come together over this. They are raising funds to build a memorial to Matt on the baseball field.
“It’s neat to see God working to make something good to come from this. It has given me the opportunity to tell people that if you don’t have a relationship with Lord Jesus Christ, you need to get one.”
The 17-year-old junior’s funeral was held at the Georgia academy’s baseball field. More than 400 people attended Matthew’s funeral. Matthew’s football jersey lay draped across his casket. His coaches served as pallbearers.
Fran Doster, who works in the school’s main office and is an assistant girl’s basketball coach at the school, says Matthew was the epitome of the good kid.
“He had no enemies,” she said. “He was so personable.
“He was the kind of person every parent hopes their kid grows up to be. He was a young man any mom would be glad for their daughters to date.
“It has taken a toll on all of the students,” Fran said. “Students in every grade of this school knew him.”
Rev. Garth Duke-Barton, the pastor of Friendship Methodist Church in Donalsonville, where Matthew was a member, says entire communities in the area were devastated. He had the difficult chore of officiating at the 17-year-old junior’s funeral.
“Southwest Georgia Academy doesn’t just attract people from Damascus,” he said. “There are students from Miller County, Calhoun County, Early County and Seminole County.
“Matt was an active member of our youth program, and he ran a program called ‘Media Shout.’
“He always had smile on his face, and he was always willing to help anyone in need. What I’ll remember most is that he always tried to make people laugh.”
The pastor said it’s tough to minister to youth when such a tragedy happens involving someone as well loved as Matthew.
“Right now I’m just reminding them of the good things they saw and the fun they had with Matthew,” he said.
Bradley Calhoun, of Monroe, said he duck hunts on Lake Seminole about three times a year, and he has seen firsthand how treacherous the lake can be.
On Christmas weekend, he and his group of duck hunters rescued four other duck hunters whose boat struck a tree that was just below the surface of the water. It instantly capsized their boat.
“We were hunting near the dam when we saw a boat coming across the lake at about 20 mph, and all of a sudden it hit something in 30 feet of water, and it was upside down,” Bradley said.
The lake was high that day was heavy rains, and standing timber usually visable was just under the surface, he said.
“We drove over there and were able to get all of them in our boat,” he said. “Everybody had on waders, and nobody had on a lifejacket.
“If we hadn’t just happened to be there and see it happen, I don’t see how they could have made it out alive. Nobody else was around.”
Bradley said the men’s boat sank, and they lost all of their guns and gear.
Small boats on big water can be dangerous at any time, but particularly in winter, and particularly on Seminole.
“It is so dangerous there,” he said. “It’s real shallow in places with a lot of stumps,” Bradley said.
“If you go duck hunting in that kind of weather, wear your lifejacket at all times, and you need to wear a whistle around your neck,” he said, recalling the harrowing situation when he and his friends rescued the other hunters. “Those guys were trying to call for help. It was so cold no sounds were coming out of their mouths.”
On Jan. 17, two Lake Lanier duck hunters had to be rescued when their boat sank. The hunters fired their shotguns to attract attention, and a homeowner called 911 and used his boat to rescue them.