West Dam Park has history of drownings

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Monday, June 24, 2013

EVANS, Ga. (WRDW) -- It was supposed to be a fun day at the lake with friends, but for 26-year-old Naval officer Billy Sims Jr., it ended in tragedy.

"He began to kind of struggle and flail his arms a little bit, and one person asked if he was OK. He kinda shook his head and that was when he went under," Georgia DNR First Ranger Bobby Timmerman said.

Sims was trying to swim from the edge of the roped-off swimming area to a buoy in free water and back. Officers say many drownings like this occur when swimmers underestimate the distance and the difficulty of the swim.

"A lot of these markers and things, they trick your eyes and you just don't realize how far it is until you try," Timmerman explained.

From shore the buoy doesn't look that far, so News 12 decided to test it out.

Even with a life jacket, about half way out there, reporter Christie Ethridge started struggling. On the way back, she lagged. Finally, out of breath, she made it back to shore, confirming Timmerman's warning that the buoy is a lot farther than it looks from shore.

West Dam Park is no stranger to drownings.

"In years past, we've had several incidents just like this where someone has tried to swim to an island or object in the water from the same park," Timmerman said.

Just last year, a teenager drowned after rafting with a friend. Back in 2008, the area saw three drownings during the summer, one happening when a couple friends tried to swim out to a small island about 100 yards from shore.

Timmerman says this should be a warning that if an accident like this could happen to an officer in the Navy, it can happen to anyone.

Despite the multiple drownings we've had lately, officers say they get more reports of drownings when water levels are low. They say it's because there's more stuff sticking up out of the water that people feel inclined to swim toward.

A good thing to note, many of the park areas around Clarks Hill Lake have free life jackets you can use for the day.

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