September 28, 2008

Accidental Drownings Claimed 33 Lives in Past Decade, Study Reveals


By Jim Washington

The Virginian-Pilot

They were swimming with their kids or with friends, on vacation or out for a day at the beach.

From a 5-year-old Portsmouth girl playing in the Ocean View surf to a 71-year-old Richmond man who went out for a dip at the Oceanfront and was found dead days later, 33 people have drowned accidentally off Norfolk and Virginia Beach in the past 10 years.

That's according to reports compiled by The Virginian-Pilot, based on data from the Virginia Beach Police Department, the Norfolk Division of Aquatics and Recreational Water Activities, and newspaper archives.

With summer's official end this week, water services in both cities are studying the events of this season and making plans for next year.

"We always look at what we could do better," said Dan Jones, head of aquatics and recreational water activities for Norfolk.

On average, two people drown each year along the Oceanfront and one dies while swimming at Ocean View beaches along the Chesapeake Bay.

Twenty-two have drowned accidentally at the Oceanfront since 1998. The worst years were 2001 and 2002, with five accidental drowning deaths each. In 2005, four people died. There were no reported drowning deaths in 2000 and 2007.

Two drowning deaths in the past decade at the Oceanfront were ruled suicides, according to Beach police.

Here are some facts about the drowning victims at the Oceanfront:

* Ages ranged from 8 to 71 .

* Five of the victims were juveniles, ages 8 , 13 , 14 , 16 and 17 .

* All but six victims were from outside the Hampton Roads area, coming from Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Kentucky as well as other parts of Virginia.

* The deaths happened at all times of day, many during hours and at places where lifeguards were not on duty. In many cases, it is difficult to determine exactly when and where a death occurred.

In the Oceanfront's only drowning death this summer, 19-year-old Granby High School student Derrick Rand died about 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24 while swimming and boogie-boarding with friends. It was the first drowning death at the Oceanfront since October 2006 .

Tom Gill, captain of the Virginia Beach Life Saving Service, sees the low numbers as proof of the job that lifeguards do at the Oceanfront, as well as a reminder of what more could be done.

"Considering the number of people who come here every summer, that's an incredibly small number," he said. "But when I look at something like what happened this summer, that's our biggest disappointment. That's where I think we could be doing more in terms of education."

He estimated that about 3 million people visit the Oceanfront in a typical summer.

At the peak of the season, about 100 lifeguards a day staff more than 60 stands from 1st Street to 42nd Street, Gill said. For a month after Labor Day, patrols are reduced. Rip currents are the No. 1 reason life- guards go in the water, Gill said.

According to Norfolk city records, 11 people drowned at Ocean View beaches in the past 10 years.

The worst year was 2005, with four drowning deaths. The most recent case happened July 17 when a 42-year-old Norfolk man drowned while swimming to crab pots off East Ocean View, according to the city.

The Chesapeake Bay beaches are calmer and draw far fewer people than the Oceanfront, but swimmers face the same risks, Jones said. "Everything can change with the tides," he said.

The lifeguard services work year-round on educating people about safe swimming.

"God bless the Olympics, there's a big surge in swimming right now," Gill said. "Because of that we're reaching out, going into schools, using the media, etc., trying to get people to learn to swim and getting the word out about safety."

Jim Washington, (757) 446-2536, [email protected]

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For more details, charts and an interactive map, go to Pilot

Originally published by BY JIM WASHINGTON.

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