Nikki Smith, 17, left, and Keshuanda Smith, 19, right, are consoled with a hug at the Cromwell Hills Apartments after learning that the body of their brother, Kentory Ray, was found. Ray and another boy had been missing since Sunday when they were last seen in the South Chickamauga Creek.
Doris Chubb didn't hear cries for help or see any sign that a life-and-death struggle had taken place.
But she noticed the clothing strewn in the trees, and knew that it must belong to the two 11-year-old boys who had disappeared under the surface of Chickamauga Creek just minutes before.
"When I got down there we didn't see nothing but clothes hanging up," said Chubb, who knows everybody and lives a street away from where the boys were reported missing Sunday afternoon.
Four boys went off to play in the creek. Two returned. Chubb had noticed the two coming back and asked what was wrong. Someone has drowned, she was told.
Chubb, who is trained in CPR, was off, with the two boys showing her the way. They climbed down the bank and made their way through the brush, she said.
It was a ritual for the neighborhood boys to strip off their clothes when they got to the muddy water. No clothing meant there would be no scolding from their mothers if they came home wet or covered in mud.
On Monday, mothers had waited through the night, not knowing. They just wanted their babies back.
By about 1 p.m., divers had found one body. About an hour later, the other.
Sobs were about to erupt on Juniper Street.
Chattanooga police officers knocked on doors and stood by as the families of Thomas Ruffin and Kentory Ray were told that the boys had been found nearly a day after they were seen going under in South Chickamauga Creek.
Nikki Smith, 17, let out a high-pitched scream that broke into a deeper sob.
Smith and her sister, Keshuanda Smith, 19, had hopes that their brother, Kentory, was alive.
Keshuanda Smith had wanted to look for him.
"He's holding on to a rock or a branch or something," she said. "He's very smart. I'm just going to think positive. Hopefully, he's going to be OK. I'm praying that he's going to be OK. I know that he's going to be OK."
Shortly after, police delivered the grim news.
The siblings, including an older brother, Kelvin, embraced as tears streamed down their faces.
Kentory was adopted when he was just 6 years old. He and his siblings had entered foster care when he was 8 months old. The older ones had begun coming back for visits in just the past few months, and they assembled upon learning that Kentory was missing.
Thomas and Kentory had just started sixth grade at Tyner Middle Academy. Kentory had lived in Cromwell Hills Apartments, a Chattanooga Housing Authority development, only a matter of weeks, but he had made friends fast. Thomas lived just across the cul-de-sac. The boys were running around the neighborhood together in no time. Now both were gone.
The two remaining boys were weary, with eyes bloodshot from tears, neighbors said.
"I was explaining to them that death is something that you go through," Chubb said. "They not talking. They shocked. They're just staring at walls. They ain't even speaking. I tried talking to Demetrius last night. 'It's not your fault. It's not your fault. You a kid. You probably thought it wasn't something that serious.' It's a hard lesson, but it's a lesson well learned."
According to accounts from police and what the two boys told Chubb, this is how events unfolded.
The boys were horse-playing. Kentory, who didn't know how to swim, slipped and went under. Thomas, who did know how to swim, went in after him. The other two stood by watching as the current took them away. They never saw Kentory or Thomas resurface.
The water ranged from five to eight feet deep, and the current was moving swiftly in certain sections after 10 hours of rainfall on Saturday.
Trails and fishing spots dot the creek, but it was never intended as a swimming spot for recreational use.
"It's not appropriate for swimming at all. When you get down there, the foliage on both sides is really dense," Chattanooga Police Department Chief Bobby Dodd said. "When the first officers got down there yesterday afternoon, there were snakes sliding in off the banks. Snakes are really active down there."
Debris and algae surrounded the muddy creek bed.
"The water is the color of dirt. It's murky. It's nasty," Chubb said. "Why would you even want to get in it? But they're boys. We have nothing for them to do out here."
The playground equipment and basketball courts are in disrepair in the complex. A fence used to secure the property runs along the woods, residents said, but there are now gaps.
It's an undertaking to find the creek and travel back to the apartments. Young officers in good physical condition became winded hiking back up.
"I'm climbing over trees. I had to grab onto roots in the ground, and somebody was pushing me," Chubb said. "How did [the boys] even manage to get down there?"
Monday afternoon, mothers sat in the shade near their front porches discussing what had happened. Many had no idea that the place the boys called "the lake" existed so close to their homes.
"You think kids are safe because we're so close knit as a community. If I would have known that was back there, I would never let any of my nieces and nephews off my street," Chubb said. "You can drown in a teaspoon of water. We've got to do better educating our kids that that's a hazard. If they knew what the real and potential dangers of that water [were], they would have never went down there."
Contact staff writer Beth Burger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.
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