PFDs always best, user warns

Life vest would have saved outdoorsman Milton ‘Rocky’ Ourso

Editor’s note: Milton R. “Rocky” Ourso died in a boating accident on June 27, 2009, and son-in-law Travis Dardenne posted this story on the forum as a caution to other boaters of the need to wear PFDs.

The child was quiet now.

The woman held him close under the hot Louisiana sun. But the heat of the sun on this day was no match for the cold that gripped her heart.

In the distance, she could hear the sound of a boat motor. It was the sound of her rescue from the levee on which she sat holding her grandson. But it was also the sound of her deliverance to a life of unspeakable grief and heartbreak.

Because somewhere beneath the now-still water of the river she once loved was her husband. Across the water floated the boat in which they had been riding only moments ago.

On its floor were the lifejackets that would have saved his life.

Unexpected tragedy

It was a day that started with great promise for Rocky and Drena Ourso. On most days, the couple spent hours with their grandson Peyton. Even so, they had never kept him overnight, so this was going to be a first. Peyton’s parents had left a few days earlier on a cruise, and 18-month-old Peyton would be staying with them that night. Rocky was on top of the world and loving it.

At 52, Milton R. “Rocky” Ourso was the oldest of seven siblings and head of the family farming operation he owned with his three brothers. Their father, Milton Sr., had retired in 1982 and sold the farm to his four sons. Over the years, the Ourso brothers grew the operation to well over 5,000 acres, producing sugarcane, soybeans and crawfish. Rocky was serving his fourth term as an Iberville Parish Councilman. He was a workaholic, but one who loved what he did.

Rocky Ourso was a busy man, but he was a busy man who loved people. Drena worked side by side with him in their business and laughed that Rocky would talk the ears off a tractor if there was no one else around for him to talk to. He worked hard, he laughed hard, and he loved his life and family.

When Peyton was born in 2004, Rocky and Drena’s life changed. He was their first grandchild and, after many years of a life consumed by managing the business, the couple made plans to start spending more time relaxing with their grandson. They bought a camp and boat, and spent a lot of time on the water. Peyton loved to ride in the boat with Rocky and Drena.

That morning little Peyton “Rock” Dardenne was a fixture at Rocky’s side as he went about his business. A chance meeting led to lunch with two other farmers and their sons. Drena recalls thinking that Rocky and Peyton were playing so loudly they would have been asked to leave if they had been somewhere other than the local Popeye’s. After lunch, Peyton went down for a nap and Rocky went back to work.

Around 4 o’clock that afternoon, Rocky, Drena and Peyton left the shop and headed for Grand River to check their crab traps. It was a clear, hot June day, and crabs were plentiful. They stopped for snacks, and then launched the boat as usual. Drena parked the truck and trailer while Rocky readied the boat and put Peyton in his life jacket.

As they prepared to leave the dock, it dawned on Drena that she had forgotten Peyton’s sunscreen. Rocky told her not to worry: They would only be gone a few minutes. As they headed down the river, Drena Ourso looked away from her husband to shift her grandson’s position and adjust his hat.

Suddenly, she was underwater, disoriented, struggling to right herself. Peyton was no longer in her arms, and she had no memory of him being ripped from her grasp. All she could remember was a horrible blow to her chest and finding herself underwater.

She managed to surface and saw her grandson only 5 feet away, screaming and, thankfully, floating. As she reached him, she saw the boat circling farther away out of reach. She saw Rocky between her and the bank only 20 feet away.

She swam toward her husband telling him to swim. The levee was so close, easily within reach. But something was wrong. He wouldn’t turn to the bank. He wouldn’t swim.

She reached him, but as she did so they both went under.

He pushed her away.

She screamed at him to swim. She screamed for help. She heard Peyton’s cries of terror and pushed him toward the bank

She looked back and saw her husband disappear.

No answers

Drena Ourso doesn’t know what their boat hit that caused them to be thrown into the waters of the Grand River. She doesn’t know what prevented her husband from being able to swim to the safety of the levee.

She is painfully aware, however, of the lifejackets they chose not to wear. The ones that would have saved her husband’s life.

She knows all too clearly what she wants us to know: Always wear a lifejacket; always use a kill switch. If you don’t, the life you lose can never be replaced.

And those left behind will never be the same.