Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 19, 2013

Grand Traverse officials to discuss Twin Lakes safety

BY MICHAEL WALTON
mwalton@record-eagle.com

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Families of teenagers who tried to save a drowning Traverse City West Senior High School student plan to attend a meeting tonight that will feature discussion about safety at Twin Lakes Park.

Owen Williamson, 17, drowned in North Twin Lake on May 31 while with friends. His was the third drowning at the Grand Traverse County-owned park since 2010.

Bill Watson's son Zachary was at the beach the afternoon his friend drowned. Bill Watson said students and parents want to see how the Grand Traverse County Parks & Recreation Commission responds to safety concerns raised by Williamson's death.

"People are going to be asking 'what are you going to do to make that lake safer?'" Watson said.

Christine Maxbauer, a county commissioner and member of the parks and rec board, said she first asked about improved safety at Twin Lakes Park following the 2011 drowning death of Daniel Edward Doherty. Nicholas Lawrence Wayne Cooper drowned in the lake in 2010.

Maxbauer is pushing for installation of a designated swim area and safety equipment at the park. Maxbauer also said she's personally observed a precipitous drop-off in the lake bottom near the beach frequented by swimmers.

"If the county does nothing else, I sincerely hope they will mark off the swim area and mark the drop-off," Maxbauer said following Williamson's death.

A report written by county Parks and Recreation Department Director Jason Jones stated Williamson drowned while trying to swim between a main beach at Twin Lakes Park and another beach about 166 yards away.

But witness accounts differ. Friends present at the lake May 31 told the Record-Eagle Williamson was not a strong swimmer and stayed behind while others swam to the beach.

One witness told Grand Traverse County sheriff's deputies that Williamson tried to reach the other beach by walking along the shore. Another said Williamson was "staying close to shore, trying to learn how to swim/work his way along the shoreline," according to deputies' reports.

Jones' report stated the "lake bottom's topography had no impact on the (three) incidents."

Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley also told Jones there is no underwater current in the lake, despite what other emergency response officials said.

Jones' report recommended several safety changes for the park. Those include providing funds for a lifeguard, safety equipment, a swim lesson and water safety program, and permanent buoys to mark a swim area.

Jones requested about $15,000 annually to staff a lifeguard at Twin Lakes Park following Cooper's death in 2010. The county commission denied the request.

Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority, a public entity self-insurance pool that serves as the parks department’s risk management association, is conducting a separate investigation of the drowning incidents and the proposed safety changes.

"Our commission can certainly make a decision not to follow their recommendation, but our commission needs to understand they could be taking on additional risk," Jones said.

Bill Watson said officials need to do something to make Twin Lakes safer. He also said it's unclear how emergency personnel responded to Williamson's drowning, and why untrained teens were asked to carry out rescue efforts.

Teen swimmers -- not first responders -- towed a life jacket, then an inflatable raft to friends who fought to keep Williamson above the surface after pulling him from the lake bottom.

"There are some questions to be asked of the first responders," Watson said.

The parks and recreation board will meet at 6 p.m. at the Governmental Center.