CYNTHIANA, Ky. ― Beth Collins suggested they go to the dam that sunny day in 2011.

After weeks of rain in northcentral Kentucky, the skies had cleared, so Collins and her boyfriend, Brandon Holbert, could finally get outside and do something.

The South Fork Licking River was the usual hangout spot for Collins, then 21, and her friends. Families would come to swim and fish near the dam. There was even a rope swing.

But the river was moving fast that day, rushing over the concrete dam, making it hard to see the structure. They had to walk across its top to get to their favorite spot on the other bank.

“The water was really high,” Collins said. “We should’ve been like, ‘No.’”

The first time, they made it over. But when Holbert, 20, tried to walk back over the dam, he slipped. Collins waited for him to get back up.

“But he didn’t,” she said, “I didn’t know what to do.”

A friend and a nearby fisherman rushed downstream and pulled Holbert out of the water. Beth ran to him, screaming. She tried to give him CPR, thinking she might know how to do it. She didn’t. 

Holbert was gone.

More:Kentucky is getting wetter as climate change brings an era of extremes, data shows

Explaining the fatality of low-head dams

Holbert’s death was one of the hundreds of cases of Americans who have died after getting sucked into a “low-head” dam, a style used in the late 1800s to power mills and distilleries. More than 10,000 were built around the nation and remain in place. They are not very tall, which gives them their name, reach from bank to bank and can be difficult to see from upstream. Many are no longer needed, but they are still capable of pulling swimmers and kayakers to their deaths.

In August, a man drowned in Scott County while rafting with his 17-year-old son near the Elkhorn Creek low-head dam. It was the second drowning death there in 15 months.

At least 37 people have died in Kentucky at the site of a low-head dam, and at least 1,400 people have died nationwide.

But the true number is unknown because there are no federal or state agencies responsible for maintaining an inventory of low-head dams, repairing them or keeping track of the people who die. 

“Many of the dams are really orphaned,” said Manuela Johnson of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “Nobody seems to claim ownership of them. But they’re still there.”

Johnson said the dams are killing people far beyond the U.S. For example, she estimates six or seven people die daily in India.

“I have a Google alert set up with two words: dam and drowning. And I get a report every day,” she said.