By Kelsey Richardson
DCN Regional Staff
Each year Lake Lanier collects more names on its list of drownings and boating fatalities.
With 11.8 million visitors annually, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, Lanier holds the title of Georgia’s most popular lake. Population size factors into the deadly reputation of the lake that dominates other frequently visited lakes like Alatoona, Oconee and Sinclair when it comes to deaths.
The Law Enforcement Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources keeps tabs on all of its major lakes, providing public access to the number of boating fatalities, drownings, boating incidents and boating under the influence cases.
The department reported a total of 145 drownings and 57 boating fatalities at Lanier from 1999-2018. Boating fatalities may include drownings, but only in connection with a moving boat.
Lake Lanier had two boating fatalities in 2015, eight in 2016, two in 2017 and two in 2018. Seven drownings took place on Lanier in 2015, nine in 2016, five in 2017 and eight in 2018.
The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Lake Allatoona, in northwest Georgia, hosts 7 million people annually. From 2015-2018 Allatoona has accumulated a total of 16 lake-related deaths, compared to Lanier’s 43.
How locals and visitors feel about Lanier
Richard Stever can trace his family’s Gainesville roots back to the 1800s. Over the 32 years he has spent visiting Lanier, Stever said he has never had family members or friends die on the lake.
However, this is not the case for the number of accidents he has witnessed.
“For some reason this lake seems to claim a lot of people every year regardless of the season,” Stever said. “Fishermen have gotten hurt, boats have been capsized.”
Stever remembers one person in particular who got into a boating accident around 10 years ago. He said his friend was traveling on the lake at around 60 mph and crashed into a boat that didn’t have its lights on.
“Nobody died or got hurt, but this was all because of poor practice in boating,” Stever said.
From 2015-2018, Georgia DNR reported a total of 128 boating incidents. During the same span Allatoona had 66 boating incidents, Oconee had 19 and Sinclair had 16. Both Lake Oconee and Sinclair don’t have visitor centers, making it difficult to track the amount of lake-goers.
Jay Weems, Georgia Power’s land management specialist for Lake Sinclair, said he estimates that around 8,000 people live around Sinclair and 5,000 reside around Oconee.
Hannah Wilcher, executive director of Visit Lake Oconee, said Oconee is the second largest lake next to 38,000-acre Lanier, covering 19,000 acres. While incidents do happen on Oconee, Wilcher said it’s not to the same scale as Lanier.
“One thing that makes us different from Lake Lanier is that we never feel overcrowded,” she said. “It does feel safer out here and there’s not a ton of boats backed up on the water.”
During a typical week, Kim Martin, day camp director at Lake Lanier Canoe Kayak Club, can usually be found on the lake or near it. LCKC is located at the Lake Lanier Olympic Park on the north end of the lake near the mouth of the Chattahoochee River. When she married her husband 27 years ago, the two lived on a sailboat for a year at Aqualand Marina on Lanier.
Martin has held water sports-related jobs, including working as the aquatics director of the University of North Georgia, for 47 years. Both of her children have served on LCKC’s national teams. She describes her time on Lanier as “magical and phenomenal.”
“They’ve (club members) been racing and had some boats come in at high speeds, but for the most part, they feel safe here,” Martin said. “Most people are very conscientious and courteous out here on the lake.”
Ben Barnes, who is training with the LCKC high performance team, spends three hours on the lake every day. He traveled from Wake Forest University to undergo training for nationals during the summer.
Before he visited the lake, Barnes said he had heard the stories about the lives it claims every year. However, after a couple of months on Lanier, his worries went away.
“Boats come through all the time, and I haven’t had an incident,” Barnes said. “I feel super safe on the lake, there’s nothing wrong with it. I haven’t seen anything or witnessed anything.”
If only they had a life jacket
Life jackets might not be the most fashionable attire on the lake. But, they can be the determining factor between life and death.
Eight drownings and two boating fatalities have taken place this year on Lake Lanier, according to Mark McKinnon, Georgia DNR’s public affairs officer for the Law Enforcement Division.
Two recent incidents occurred back-to-back, in less than 24 hours on Memorial Day weekend.
The body of 30-year-old Reginald Whitehead of Perry was located around 10:45 p.m. on May 25, at Shoal Creek Park, followed by 61-year-old Michael Thompson just after midnight, near his boat dock in the 5400 block of Pine Forest Road.
Capt. Brad Rounds oversees Hall County’s Marine Patrol Division, which was recently placed under the Uniform Patrol Division. He said one of the most common trends he finds with lake deaths involves the victim’s lack of a life jacket. Whitehead was reported by authorities as not wearing a personal flotation device and unable to swim.
“If you don’t know how to swim, please always wear a life jacket,” Rounds said. “We wouldn’t be dealing with this many drownings if they just put on a life jacket.”
Rounds said keeping Lanier safe is a group effort with his team, Georgia DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Hall County Fire Services.
With the warmer months in full swing, marine patrol deputies have ramped up their presence on the lake.
“Many people think that they’re just out on a boat on the lake, but there’s a lot more to it,” Rounds said. “There’s so much traffic. We have a lot of the same calls on the street and water.”
Rounds, who spent nine years on the Hall County Sheriff’s Office dive team, describes the group as a recovery team, not a rescue team.
Hall County Fire Services’ takes the role as the rescue team, arriving at a drowning scene as soon as possible. The Sheriff’s Office deputies deal mostly with recovering the body.
Rounds said if someone spots another person drowning, he recommends calling 911, then throwing out a flotation device.
If the flotation device is out of question, he said the other most helpful action entails pinpointing the victim’s location.
“It’s hard because when you’re out on the lake, you’re floating,” he said. “Location is big. If we have to go in and recover a body, having a last known point makes recovery a whole lot easier.”
Water and alcohol, a deadly mixture
If a person chooses to consume alcohol while out on the lake, Rounds recommends having a designated driver.
“When you compound it with alcohol, it’s a deadly mixture,” he said.
From 2015-2018, Georgia DNR estimates 214 incidents of boating under the influence on Lanier. During the same time frame, Allatoona had 121 boating under the influence cases, Oconee had 40 and Sinclair had eight.
Martin said she has lots of discussions with her day camp members about safety and not boating when people are drinking alcohol or swimming when others are using drugs. Her campers range from age 7-12.
“Education around water is such a big thing,” Martin said. “There are so many drownings, and those are preventable.”
Protecting children from the silent killer
Shannon Parris, aquatics manager at the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center in Gainesville, oversees the facility’s lifeguards in addition to her other duties.
She compares drowning victims to those who undergo a heart attack.
“Not everyone experiences it the same way, and it’s kind of the same for drowning,” Parris said.
“There can be a swimmer who doesn’t appear to be struggling, but unfortunately they turn to breathe and there’s a wall of water from other activity going on. All of a sudden they’ve gone to the bottom or have stopped moving.”
Not all drownings happen in silence. The typical movie scene of someone flailing and screaming could also occur. Parris said the way someone drowns depends on how and why they began intaking water.
A mistake she said adults often make involves thinking shallow water is safe.
“Unfortunately this isn’t always the situation,” she said. “Just because they can touch the bottom, they can still slip and drown.”
For parents with children, she encourages them to always remain vigilant because “kids can move especially fast.” She recommends staying at an arm’s length.
A 10-year-old Hoschton boy was declared dead on Wednesday, July 17, after being pulled from Lanier near Margaritaville on July 11. His 30-year-old father died one day later. DNR Maj. Mike England identified the boy as Ethan Chen and the father as Libao Chen.
Capt. Zachary Brackett wrote that the father went under the water to look for Ethan, after noticing that his son had not surfaced.
The incident is still under investigation from Georgia DNR.
Martin said she teaches parents about their role in watching children on the lake.
“You can’t pick up a book, you can’t be grilling burgers, you can’t be doing anything,” she said. “You need to be watching your children on the water and doing nothing else.”
Parris has only worked at pools, never in open waters.
“I have saved people not to the point where they need CPR,” she said. “People that, no pun intended, got in over their head.”
The best advice she would give someone who spots a potential drowning victim includes “reach and throw, don’t go.”
She advises people to find a floatable object to throw and tell the victim to grab it. Parris said to most people, latching onto a flotation device may seem simple, but someone who is drowning may not notice it out of panic. This is why shouting instructions proves necessary.
With natural bodies of water, there are sudden drops in depth. Parris recommends staying informed about the topography before entering it and never swimming alone.
Above all, wear a life jacket.
“A mistake people make is thinking that they don’t have to wear a life jacket on a boat or kayak, but they could accidentally hit their head and become unconscious,” Parris said. “Even if you can swim, wear one.”