SAVANNAH, Ga. – The collaborative efforts of a Hartwell Lake corps ranger and bystander saved two boys’ lives after the pair struggled to swim from a remote buoy to the beach shoreline June 3.
The incident occurred near the Singing Pines Recreation Area when Corps Park Ranger Tim Crabtree, patrolling the area, noticed the dangerous situation and motioned the pair to return to safe waters.
When one of the boys became winded as he attempted to swim toward the shore, the pair retreated back to the anchored float. As Crabtree prepared to deliver loaner life vests to the boys clinched onto a “Boat Keep Out” buoy, Alexandria Gunter, another visitor swimming in the area, offered to deliver the life vests to the stranded swimmers.
“It’s not every day that you get to be a hero,” said Gunter. “They were stranded and I wouldn’t have volunteered to go out there if they didn’t need the help.”
Gunter, a self-described avid swimmer who lives near Hartwell Lake, said she volunteered because she was available to assist, even though the buoy was isolated and far from the shoreline.
The impromptu rescue operation took nearly 20 minutes, she said.
“Once I got to them, we chatted as we floated our way back to safety,” Gunter said. “It took about 10 minutes to float back and they were grateful I was able to help them.”
Scott Kelley, a Corps natural resource program manager, warns that the “Boat Keep Out” buoy markers must be at least 100 feet from delineated swimming areas. They are intended to protect designated swimming beaches and shouldn’t be destinations swimmers seek while in the water, especially without a life jacket.
“Distances by water are difficult to gauge,” said Kelley. “By the time you realize it is too far, you have put yourself a considerable distance from safety.”
Visitors who swim outside of designated areas risk being surprised by unexpected drop-offs or caught in the trappings of dangerous waters. Most of these hazards can be mitigated by wearing a life jacket, said Kelley.
Hartwell Lake has a life jacket loaner stand at every designated swimming area at the site. Each stand is equipped with sizes for all ages and body types. The stands offer safety and convenience and reinforce the message to “Wear It,” a Corps slogan used to promote water safety. Since the establishment of the loaner stands, park rangers have seen a vast increase in life jacket usage at Hartwell recreation areas, said Kelley.
“The stands have proven to be very useful to our lake visitors,” he said. “When people see the visible loaner board, the chances of them using a life jacket significantly increases. Making life jackets readily available to the public significantly decreases the chance of injury and drowning.”
To date, Hartwell Lake officials have reported three water-related fatalities, including the July 4 drowning of 21-year-old Odell Gaither, who died of complications of drowning after jumping off a dock. Gaither, who wasn’t wearing a life jacket, was underwater for nearly 10 minutes before bystanders noticed him.
“Most people who drown do not have a life jacket on and almost all drowning can be prevented by simply choosing to wear one,” said Kelley.
Kelley warns that visitors should also avoid drinking alcohol or consuming certain prescription drugs before or while swimming.
“These substances can deteriorate your body control and have an effect on whether you survive the day or not,” he said.
At all Savannah Corps lake sites, visitors swim at their own risk. The Corps encourages adults to watch children because most people drown within 10 feet of safety. Many shorelines have drop-offs and swimmers can be pulled under by the current.
And as a general rule, don’t debate following lifesaving measures while in, on or near the lake.