California Forum

A memorial to drowning victims – a warning to others

Members of the Sacramento Fire Department look for a young man who drowned at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers near Discovery Park on July 1.
Members of the Sacramento Fire Department look for a young man who drowned at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers near Discovery Park on July 1.

Just outside my neighborhood in East Sacramento stands a memorial to a bicyclist who died after being hit by a car. The memorial consists of a bike painted bright white – a so-called ghost bike – decorated with a floral wreath.

Whoever maintains that memorial doesn’t want to forget Arlene Sasse, the 22-year-old Sacramento State student. And they don’t want us to either.

There have been other ghost bikes placed near that same dangerous intersection at J Street and Carlson Avenue, where two others have died. But the memorials to the others have been taken down. Folks in my neighborhood debate whether the ghost bike should remain. Some say it’s time for that memorial to be removed – Arlene was killed in 2011. Others insist the bike remain because it is a poignant reminder not only of a life that was lost but of the danger at that intersection.

I agree the bike should stay. I pass that ghost bike several times a day, and every time, I’m reminded of the accident that took Arlene’s life. If I’m driving, I slow down. If I’m walking or biking, I pay closer attention to what’s going on around me. I think the ghost bike makes the intersection safer.

And if that’s true, Arlene may not have died in vain.

There are other dangerous areas in Sacramento that might be less so if we remembered the people who lost their lives there.

Perhaps our rivers and waterways would be safer if we remembered the people who drown each year.

Five have drowned so far this summer; four in the same area this summer. Officials are scrambling to do more, but how do you warn of danger when Sacramento waterways are so inviting on our famously hot summer days?

The Sacramento Bee reported that the beach where the most recent drownings occurred was full of swimmers unaware of the others who perished. One said the water “has the illusion of safety.”

I think there is a way to break through that illusion.

A memorial.

With photographs of those who have lost their lives. Signage that lists their names, their ages and the dates of their deaths. A ghost bike, if you will.

The memorial should be near the most dangerous areas, certainly near the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers at Discovery Park and Tiscornia Beach.

Memorializing those who have died would send a powerful message. They had come to the river to swim or wade, just as someone reading the sign would be doing. They were unaware of the dangers. Perhaps they couldn’t swim and entered the water without a life preserver. Perhaps they underestimated the strength of the current. Perhaps they waded too far after a few beers.

Perhaps they were fooled by the illusion of calm water.

A memorial showcasing the faces of those who have perished would remind everyone to use our waterways more carefully. That would make Sacramento safer.

And then perhaps those who drowned wouldn’t have died in vain.

Laura-Lynne Powell is a writer at the Capitol Morning Report, an online publication covering state politics and public policy. Contact her at