In the wake of another drowning death near Factory Shoals Recreation Park — this time a 14-year-old boy — some residents are saying swimming should be outlawed at the popular county park.
However, public safety officials say swimmers just need to be careful and not take risks.
While injuries, and even deaths, seem to be an annual occurrence at the shoals, officials say swimmers need to be careful with any body of water they’re unfamiliar with, should not swim too far out if they’re inexperienced, should swim with multiple people and should not drink alcohol when swimming.
“Don’t overestimate your own swimming ability,” said Covington Fire Lt. James Cox, coordinator for the Covington-Newton County Dive Team.
Cox said in many of the cases where the Dive Team has been called to retrieve a body, investigations have shown the victims were poor or inexperienced swimmers.
Dangers at the shoals
The Alcovy River’s current is always strong below the rock outcroppings at “the pool” where people generally swim at Factory Shoals Park, Cox said.
Higher water levels — like those that were present Thursday — only compound the strength of the current and potential danger, said Jody Nolan, assistant director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency.
“Down at the shoals there’s ever-changing, what we call, hydrodynamics from season to season and time to time, depending on the water and rainfall,” Nolan said.
“You may visit the shoals this Saturday and the water may be calm, cool and collected, and you may visit next Saturday and be dealing with a totally different situation.”
During the past five to six years, Nolan said, people have generally experienced lower flows, when many of the rocks are visible and people can walk from one side to the other.
With the water levels up more recently this year from plentiful rain, turbulence at the pool increases and people can get caught in unexpected currents, Nolan said.
“If people weren’t expecting to move into a current, there may be a panic at being pushed downstream. Often that sense of panic is what causes someone to drown,” he said.
The shoals also can be home to debris, including sticks and tree limbs, that people can get caught on; the underwater rock structures also can become hazards.
Cox said that underwater topography also causes people to underestimate the depth of the river.
“There are a lot of big rocks there that are close to the surface. You may be walking on a rock and then there’s a 20-foot hole,” Cox said. “The depth varies … it’s not like a lake with a gradual decline.”
Newton County Coroner Tommy Davis said there have been five drowning at or in the general area around the shoals since 2009.
Also, Nolan said several people have broken bones and received other injuries over the year walking along the slick rocks.
No need to close the shoals
“How many have to drown there before Newton decides to close it down?” asked reader Charlene Head Bloodworth in one a few comments advocating outlawing swimming on The News’ Facebook wall.
Despite its changing conditions, if swimmers take proper safety precautions, Nolan said, there’s no reason for fear.
Not only does he handle emergency situations, Nolan also grew up in Newton County and has been swimming at the shoals since he was 9 years old.
“It’s definitely a resource Newton County has that’s been enjoyed by hundreds and hundreds of people, even before it became a county park,” Nolan said.
The river used to be a major hangout for Oxford College students, and Nolan remembers the huge crowds that used to gather on the weekends. It remains one of the few public places where people can swim in Newton County.
He said drownings can occur in any body of water if people aren’t careful.
“There used to be 300 to 400 people down there every weekend all weekend long. I guess, in some cases, there was strength in numbers,” Nolan said. “Anytime you have a large body of water, unfortunately, you experience those drownings, just like do at Lake Alatoona, Lake Lanier…”
Jackson Lake, which the Alcovy River flows into just below the shoals, has had its fair share of fatalities over the years as well, Nolan said.
He said the key is to use caution in any body of water you are unfamiliar with.
“People tend to swim out too far rather than just dipping in to cool off. They swim out as far as they can, get tired and may not be able to make it back in,” Nolan said.
The river varies in width near the shoals, ranging from around 150 to 250 feet, according to the Newton County Tax Assessor’s website.
Though neither was a factor in Thursday’s drowning, Nolan said county rules require that anyone in the park under age 18 be accompanied by an adult and prohibit alcohol consumption in the park.
“The alcohol rule is often broken at Factory Shoals; it’s very difficult to enforce,” Nolan said. People have drowned after drinking and then trying to swim. “Swimming and alcohol just don’t mix.”
Nolan and Cox advised people to always swim in pairs, and Nolan said children should wear life vests.
“Obviously, a lot of people don’t wear life jackets when swimming, but it’s still the best defense against submersion, even for children for who are very agile or self-aware,” Nolan said.
Teenager Brandon Talley and his family went to the park to swim in the river, when Talley and another juvenile got caught in a current.
Talley went under and never resurfaced, according to Newton County Sheriff’s Investigator Michael Cunningham.
The initial call came in around 3:30 p.m., and the first crews entered in the water around 4:30 p.m., but were unable to locate Talley and couldn’t search further because of the high water levels, county Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien said previously.
The county Dive Team was then called in and managed to find the body around 6 p.m., fairly quickly after entering the river. Talley was found against a rock in about 12 feet of water close to where he initially went under.
Coroner Davis confirmed the cause of death was accidental drowning.
Divers can’t see anything under water in the Alcovy River and have to search using hands and feet, guided by a rope held by a fellow team member, Cox said.
Two divers, working with separate teams, do a coordinated search of the river in arcing sweeps.