FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. — An 18-year-old Lexington high school baseball player seriously injured his neck diving into the Gulf of Mexico surf Tuesday afternoon.
Travis Gaines, an outfielder and first-baseman with Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, was taken by helicopter to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola after he apparently misjudged the depth of the water near Destin West Beach and Bay Resort Gulfside; it is believed that he struck an underwater sandbar, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported.
"I guess he misjudged the sandbar thing," said Capt. John Brinkerhoff of the Okaloosa Island Fire Department. "A lot of people go out into the waterway there and they think it just continues to get deeper.
"But if you go out 20 yards or so it gets shallow again. It's something that might have been foreign to him, being from up there (in Kentucky)."
It is not out of the ordinary for swimmers to misjudge the depth of the water where Gaines was injured, but the result was unusual, Brinkerhoff said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
"For him to do it the way that he did, just diving into the surf line like that ... I would say that the outcome was very much out of the norm," Brinkerhoff said.
Gaines was in serious condition at the hospital Wednesday, Sacred Heart spokesman Mike Burke said. Facebook photos showed the hospitalized teen in a neck brace, but awake and surrounded by friends.
Other swimmers who witnessed the incident pulled Gaines to shore, according to Brinkerhoff. The accident happened about 1:15 p.m. Tuesday.
Gaines was with his team for the Florida Beach Bash Tournament, an annual event that draws 30 teams to the area each spring. "What a tragedy," event organizer Greg Conant told the Northwest Florida Daily News. "Something similar happened six years ago to another baseball player who I think is still in a wheelchair today. There's not a whole lot we can do but offer up prayers and hope for the best.
"It's a black day today."
Fayette County public schools spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said Wednesday that Gaines' family was with him at the hospital. Gaines is the son of recently retired Lexington police Lt. Keith Gaines, a former coordinator between the police department and the neighborhoods around the University of Kentucky that have high populations of student renters.
Keven Moore, a friend of the family whose son is a friend of Travis Gaines, said coaching staff and players from Dunbar and other Lexington teams were by Gaines' side.
With the family's blessing, Moore created a Facebook page called "Let's Rally Around Travis Gaines" and released a statement on their behalf. The Facebook page, meant to give updates on Gaines' condition and solicit prayers and donations, drew more than 1,500 follows in about eight hours.
The family's statement said Gaines underwent emergency surgery Tuesday night after he injured his neck, and that he would stay at the hospital in Florida until he was fit to fly back to Kentucky. Moore said Gaines eventually would be transferred to the Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville.
"The family asks for your prayers for a full recovery," the statement said.
A donation fund for Gaines' family's expenses had been set up at Fifth Third Bank.
Champions Sports on Lexington Road near the Fayette-Jessamine County line was among businesses that pledged to donate on Facebook. Champions will donate half the money collected in April from the facility's batting cages, employee John Ringe said.
Conant told the Northwest Florida Daily News that he talked to the boy's coach Wednesday morning and was told the high school senior had some movement in his hands. Gaines planned to attend Centre College next year and intended to play baseball. "We were so sorry to hear about this," Michael Strysick, spokesman with the Danville school, told the Florida paper. "He's in our prayers and we are wishing the best for him and his family."
Conant said Paul Dunbar was scheduled to play Wednesday but was rained out. He said the team probably will play another game later this week: "The kids voted to play because they knew that's what he would want," Conant told the Florida newspaper.
How you can help
A Fifth Third Bank account has been set up to receive donations for the family, according to the Fayette school district. Checks should be made payable to "Benefit for Travis Gaines."
Angel McCurdy of the Northwest Florida Daily News and Herald-Leader staff writers Jim Warren and Josh Kegley contributed to this story.