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Safety first when dipping in Lanier
Lake Accidents pic4
Cpl. Jason Roberson, left, and Ranger First Class Mark Stephens of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources patrol the waters of Lake Laner near Aqualand Marina. - photo by Sara Guevara DCN regional staff

The southern half of Lake Lanier appears laden with the most fatalities over the past six years, including five the past couple of weeks.

But then, so are most of the parks - some nearly side by side - that are run by area governments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Lake officials aren't drawing up theories as to why certain areas of Lanier might be more dangerous or why a rash of them has occurred lately.

Some 7.5 million people visit the 39,000-acre North Georgia reservoir annually and "things can happen," said Nick Baggett, the Corps' natural resource manager at Lanier. "We'd like to see no fatalities or drownings at the project.

"I've been doing this for 20 years," he added, "and sometimes, there is no rhyme or reason (to the numbers). That doesn't keep us from looking for any things that are happening or noticing a trend. Every drowning is a tragedy."

July has been especially tragic so far.

A Lawrenceville man camping with his wife and two children drowned last week while attempting to retrieve a beach ball in about 32 feet of water.

Two people drowned the previous week.

Also this month, a 10-year-old was killed when he was hit by a personal watercraft in the Chestatee River arm of Lake Lanier in Dawson County.

On July 2, another man drowned in the lake, and the weekend before, a man drowned near Buford Dam after a church service featuring a baptism.

Often, officials have found the fault lies with lake visitors who mix drinking with boating or swimming, swim at their own risk beyond designated areas or neglect to put on a life jacket.

"In my 17 years in doing this, I've never seen a drowning victim with a life jacket on," said Sgt. Mark Burgamy, Georgia Department of Natural Resources supervisor at Lake Lanier.

Specific data about lake fatalities was scant. When asked about statistics, particularly information on when and where incidents have occurred around the lake, the Corps deferred to the DNR.

But Melissa Cummings, DNR spokeswoman, said: "I don't have a compiled database that details the information from each of these particular drownings that rangers are using.

"However, I feel certain that the rangers on the lake are aware of the areas and already are doing just that."

Cummings did provide a chart showing a breakdown of incident statistics between 1994 and 2011 at Lake Lanier. For example, as of June 28, Lanier had 15 boating incidents, eight total injuries, four drownings and two boating incidents involving a fatality this year.

DNR officers "are diligent in enforcing boating laws," Cummings said. "Patrols are scheduled for high-activity times on the water. We also work with agencies such as the (Corps) ... where appropriate, as well as sheriff's offices and other local law enforcement agencies to try and keep everyone safe on the water.

"However, no level of enforcement or patrols will prevent every accident."

Burgamy said he strongly advocates lake users wearing life jackets, which "save lives," as well as taking other safety measures.

"As the weather gets hot, folks want to get to the water to cool off and we encourage that, but we also want (visitors) to be safe," he said.

"Personal watercraft and boats don't kill people," Burgamy said. "It's the operators of those vessels. The onus is put on us as boat operators that ... we know how to operate (a vessel), we know the laws and we're operating in a safe manner."

DNR Cpl. Jason Roberson addressed lake safety at a Family Day event, "Lore of the Lake," July 10 at the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville.

"It's the worst part of my job ... when we have to get into the lake and look for (a child)," he said. "It's one thing when an adult drowns, but when one of the little ones drown, it's a bad day for all of us."

Roberson also told a group gathered around him that visitors shouldn't hesitate to call the DNR if they see any trouble on the lake.

Unfortunately, though, "as far as manpower goes, we're limited," Burgamy said. "We're operating way below where we need to be. ... We can only do what we can do with what we've got."

For example, he said, two boats are patrolling the entire lake this weekend.

"When I first came to this lake, on the average weekend, we'd have four boats running minimum," Burgamy said. "With holiday weekends, we'd have six, seven boats running."

Governments around the lake have units that respond to emergencies, such as the Hall County Dive Team. But often they respond after the tragedy has happened.

To that end, Sgt. Chris Tempel, dive team commander, said he has found that most incidents are alcohol-related.

And like Burgamy, he strongly urges that people wear life jackets.

Common sense also should dictate one's role in water activities.

"You shouldn't be in the water, period, if you're not a good swimmer," Tempel said. "If you have any doubts about your abilities to swim, you should wear a (life jacket) if you're going to be in the lake."

Lake Lanier, "as far as swimming and boating goes, is no more dangerous than any other body of water," Tempel said.

"It's just we have so many visitors here, there are so many activities on the lake and ... (there is) all the fishing tournaments.

"With increased activity, you're going to see increased accidents."