Latest drowning at state park prompts calls for restrictions on river

Monday, August 13, 2007

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The latest drowning at a state park in St. Louis County has raised questions about safety, along with calls for restrictions, at a popular swimming area along the Meramec River.

Others say every body of water carries risks, and that swimmers must exercise personal responsibility.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which administers the state parks, said Monday it was evaluating any needed action.

On Sunday, 15-year-old Isaiah Green drowned in the Meramec during a family outing at Castlewood State Park. His was the seventh drowning in two years at the swimming area.

The boy, visiting from Brooklyn, N.Y., began slipping on the river's silty bottom and went under when he tried to remove his water shoes. Six divers and a canine searched for 40 minutes before locating the boy, said to be a strong swimmer, in 12 feet of water. Neither he nor his cousin was wearing a flotation device.

In July last year, four siblings and a fifth youth drowned during a church picnic at Castlewood. An adult died in the river in 2005.

The deaths have prompted calls for swimming restrictions, more signs, limited access or even a lifeguard to prevent another drowning.

"So many tragedies have happened over the last couple years. We're looking at ways to protect our citizens," said Assistant Chief Steve Sagehorn with Metro West Fire Protection District in nearby Ballwin, which participated in the recovery.

"The Meramec is a dangerous body of water. It has undertows, undercurrents. The river changes all the time. And there are hazards underneath -- silt, branches, logs."

But Lou Amighetti with the Missouri State Water Patrol said every body of water can be dangerous.

"It comes down to personal responsibility," he said.

"Are you wearing a life jacket, are you fatigued, knowing your swimming ability, is there supervision, do you have swimming buddies?"

The seven drownings, especially the cluster of five, "keep coming back to haunt us," he said. "But the park is frequented by thousands of people a year. Every weekend, there's a minimum of 200 to 300 people in the water," with hundreds more on the beach and in the park.

Amighetti said the river's current is fairly weak at that point, which is the exact opposite point of view of Metro West's Battalion Chief Ed Beirne, who characterized it as strong.

Amighetti said the river is characterized by trash and debris below the water surface and a silty, unstable bottom.

Since 2002, 12 people have died in the Meramec from Crawford County to St. Louis. By comparison, four people died at Lake of the Ozarks last year; eight so far this year.

Amighetti said the Meramec is a body of water that can no more be shut off from the public than the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. While the park closes just after sunset, the river can be accessed at many other points.

"It's open 24 hours to anybody," he said. "People swim at their own risk. There's no possible way to run a lifeguard."

The DNR sent its risk management coordinator to meet with park rangers Monday to evaluate the situation.

"We're concerned about it, but we don't have jurisdiction of the river, only the land," DNR spokeswoman Sue Holst said.

After last year's drowning, the state posted more warnings that people swim at their own risk.

"We can't stop them from entering," she said. "There are so many places to access the river."

She said the state doesn't have the resources to post round-the-clock lifeguards at several locations.

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