Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 21, 2013

Latest drowning spurs Twin Lakes safety changes

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Nikia Parker knew emergency room staffers could not revive her cousin Owen Williamson after he drowned at Twin Lakes Park.

Parker, an emergency nurse at Munson Medical Center, watched as her coworkers tried to save Williamson on May 31.

She knew the drill. Two years ago she served as trauma nurse for another teenager who drowned in North Twin Lake.

“Nothing is going to change what happened to Owen,” Parker said Thursday during a Grand Traverse County Parks & Recreation Commission meeting. “No one is going to fix that. No one is going to fix any of the other two boys who died, but hopefully we can prevent other teenagers from ending up the same way.”

Williamson, 17, was the third person to drown at the Grand Traverse County Park since 2010, and nearly a dozen community members attended the meeting Thursday to talk about the safety shortcomings they said contributed to those deaths.

Commissioners unanimously approved immediate changes to Twin Lakes Park safety measures following the public comments, including roping off a designated swimming area, and installing safety equipment and flotation devices at the park located off North Long Lake Road.

Commissioners also instructed county officials to staff a lifeguard at the beach, organize water safety and swim lesson programs for county youths and increase warning signage around North Twin Lake.

County Parks and Recreation Department Director Jason Jones recommended many of those changes to board members after he presented a brief summary of the three drownings.

Nicholas Lawrence Wayne Cooper, 17, of Maple City, drowned in the lake in 2010 while trying to swim from the main beach to a second beach about 166 yards away.

Daniel Edward Doherty, 19, of Traverse City drowned in 2011 while searching for rocks in the lake.

Jones said Williamson also drowned while trying to swim from one shore to another, but Parker and friends who were with Williamson that day questioned Jones’ report. Parker doubted whether Williamson, an admittedly weak swimmer, would ever intentionally enter a dangerous situation in the water.

Parker theorized Williamson walked off an unexpected drop in the lake bottom before he drowned.

“He was out there walking around chest-high in the water,” she said. “He took one step in the wrong direction, and it was too much. “

Williamson’s friends said safety equipment at the park could have saved his life.

Elena Mosher found Williamson unconscious and submerged in the lake. She pulled him to the surface, but could feel herself sliding under the water as she tried to keep him up until other swimmers arrived to assist her.

“We did everything we could, and there weren’t resources there to help us do what we needed to do,” Mosher said. “If there had been a buoy or a lifering, I think, I know, we could have saved Owen.”

Board members spent little time deliberating before voting on the safety changes.

Commissioner Peter Doren also moved to implement the changes regardless of the outcome of an investigation by the parks department’s risk management association, Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority.

“Their motivation is not necessarily safety,” Doren said. “Their motivation is an insurance policy.”

Audience members applauded the commission’s action, and Mosher said she thought Williamson would have approved.

“He was very selfless, so I don’t think he would have been thinking so much about himself and this incident,” she said.

“He would have been happy to see the changes made for future swimmers.”