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'It doesn't go away' | Mother of drowned 20-year-old man urges others to be safe around water

Sevier County High School graduate Payne Mills drowned in the summer of 2017. The Sevier County Sheriff's Office said he wasn't wearing a life jacket.

After two people drowned in Cherokee Lake on Saturday and Sunday, a mother whose son drowned in Douglas Lake in 2017 offered safety and healing advice.

Sonya Smithee said she still doesn't know all the details of her son's death, but she continues to urge others to be safe around water.

"I lost my son in 2017, and it doesn't go away," Smithee exhaled.

It's been almost three years since Smithee's 20-year-old son Payne Mills died after drowning in Douglas Lake in Sevier County.

"He was just that big hearted, caring person and amazing friend, you know," Smithee smiled. "He was a good person."

The Sevier County Sheriff's Office said he wasn't wearing a life jacket when he was swimming in the lake.

RELATED: Douglas Lake drowning victim identified

Smithee is skeptical of the reason why her son was in the water in the first place with a couple of friends. She said he was never a strong swimmer and he always took the proper precautions.

She said he liked to fish, but never went to Douglas Lake on a regular basis.

"It is hard and I do send out my sympathies to those who have lost loved ones," Smithee nodded.

Over the weekend, TWRA said two other men died on Cherokee Lake. One, after being ejected from his boat in Hawkins County and another while swimming in Grainger County.

RELATED: Man dies while swimming in Cherokee Lake

RELATED: Man dies after falling overboard into Cherokee Lake

"Seventy percent of our fatalities on the waterways in Tennessee involve drowning," TWRA Officer Jeff Roberson said.

Neither men had on life jackets. TWRA said most drownings are unexpected.

"So we can bring those numbers down if folks would wear their life jacket and you know if you fall in the water with a life jacket, you're gonna float every time," Roberson explained.

Smithee knows the importance of water safety and especially how much it hurts to lose a loved one to drowning.

"His pages got ripped out, so he never got to turn 21," Smithee sniffled. "He never gets to get married."

Last week, she honored her son by going on a cross-country road trip to spread his ashes across lakes he never got to visit. Two lakes in South Dakota and Utah were on the list.

She said she could feel her son watching over her during the journey.

"Payne wanted to be cremated and put on the water where he can fish all the time," Smithee explained.

She hopes others remember him as the fun, bubbly man he was and to always be prepared.

TWRA said it's important for people of all ages to wear a life jacket any time you are in or around water. If you are boating, make sure you have all the necessary supplies before heading out, and make sure you have a clear view of your surroundings while in the water.

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