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Teen’s Drowning Revives Debate Over State Park Lifeguards

August 1, 2008

By Matthew Spolar, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Aug. 1–HARRISBURG — The drowning of a teenager living in Warminster has revived debate over a decision earlier this year to eliminate lifeguards at virtually all state park beaches.

Eric Williams, 17, was swimming in Fuller Lake at a Cumberland County state park with a group of youths when he suddenly disappeared as they were getting out of the water around 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The teens were from the Valley Youth House, an Allentown-based center for treating at-risk youths. Williams was living at one of the center’s emergency shelters.

“The counselor went to look again and didn’t see the boy,” David Gilgoff, Valley Youth House president, said. Gilgoff said Williams was a good swimmer. Gilgoff said he could not disclose details about the youth’s family.

Unsure of where Williams had gone, his chaperones searched the area before contacting a park ranger, who called in more than 50 volunteers to comb the area. Williams’ body was found just after 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Cumberland County Coroner Michael Norris said it was impossible to know if a lifeguard could have saved Williams, but state Rep. Sue Helm (R., Dauphin) said there’s a “good chance” an alert, on-duty lifeguard could have seen him go under.

“Maybe we’ll never know if a lifeguard would have saved this person or not, but it wouldn’t have hurt,” she said.

In January, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced that only Erie’s Presque Isle state park would have lifeguards this summer.

Under what the state calls its “open swim” program, beaches are unguarded and swimmers enter designated bathing areas at their own risk. The department first started implementing the policy 10 years ago because it could not find enough lifeguards.

Before this year, lifeguards had been withdrawn from 22 state park beaches. This summer, the remaining 15 beaches, including Fuller Lake, also opened without lifeguards.

In May, Auditor General Jack Wagner released an eight-page report that questioned the department’s wisdom in eliminating the lifeguards, and called for a reevaluation of the decision.

It also said the department had not done enough to warn swimmers that beaches were now unguarded.

Christine Novak, spokeswoman for the department, said 43 states employ at least a partial “open swim” policy.

Last month, the state House Committee on Tourism and Recreational Development postponed a July 22 hearing on a bill Helm introduced that outlined a $1 million plan to put lifeguards back on state park beaches.

Rep. Ron Buxton (D., Dauphin) said the hearing would be rescheduled for the fall legislative session.

“We are definitely going to pursue this,” he said.

But Rep. Jerry Nailor (R., Cumberland), the committee’s minority chairman, said he would have liked to hear testimony before the department’s decision to remove the lifeguards from the beaches this summer.

“Perhaps we should have had hearings before that decision was made,” he said. “But that wasn’t our choice.

Though there have been other drownings in state park lakes this summer, Novak said Williams’ was the first in a regulated lake area since two incidents in 1999. Both of those drownings occurred at guarded beaches.

Contact staff writer Matthew Spolar at 717-236-1819 or mspolar@phillynews com.

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