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A SAFER SUMMER?

Officials hope handouts and additional life jacket kiosks will thwart drownings at Hagg Lake


NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DANIEL FORBES - Faded photos and overgrown grass accent the sense of loss at a memorial to four family members who drowned at Hagg Lakes Sain Creek Picnic Area last August. After a winter in the wind and rain, the bedraggled monument still sports flowers, a cross and other personal touches -- testaments to peoples love for Jova Ixtacua-Castano, 42; Michael Garcia-Ixtacua, 13; Gabriela Garcia-Ixtacua, 25; and Jeremy Scholl, 3. The two-minute iPhone video shows a 3-year-old boy, his 25-year-old mother and her 13-year-old brother playing with a floating log in shallow water on a sunny afternoon last Aug. 25.

It would be a wonderful recording of a happy summer scene at Hagg Lake’s Sain Creek Picnic Area — if it weren’t being described in a sheriff’s report.

“In this video there is a visible change in the water color which appears to indicate a change in water depth,” writes Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Anderson. “The individuals come close to this area of color change but never cross it.”

Anderson’s description suggests that at least one of those individuals, at some point after the video ended, crossed the line into the “area of color change,” stepping over the surprise dropoff and drawing the other three — including the 42-year-old grandmother taking the video — to their deaths as they tried to help each other.

While the 3-year-old was found floating near the shore that evening, his mother, uncle and grandmother were found the next day at the bottom of a steep drop-off nearby.

The horrific deaths of these Hillsboro family members illustrate one of the most difficult problems faced by authorities vowing to prevent such further tragedies: How to warn unsuspecting people of the dangerous drop-offs in popular swimming areas — and how to get them to wear life jackets even if they’re only planning to wade in shallow water.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DANIEL FORBES - Washington County Parks Superintendent Todd Winter has added seven new loaner life-jacket kiosks around Hagg Lake in an effort to improve safety, although ultimately, he says, we do rely on the public to take responsibility for their own safety.

Ultimately, “We do rely on the public to take responsibility for their own safety,” said Washington County Parks Superintendent Todd Winter at an event last Thursday, May 14, showcasing the county’s efforts to prevent future drownings.

Before the four Garcia Ixtacua family members drowned last summer, the park had no signs warning waders or swimmers of the danger, although it did have two free loaner life jacket kiosks, one at Sain Creek and another at Boat Ramp C.

In the year since then, park officials have added seven more kiosks with loaner life jackets and a throw ring (a floating donut to toss to swimmers in distress) spread across the park’s busiest recreation areas.

Park officials also created a one-page handout all visitors will get when paying the entrance fee. It warns of the water’s danger to young children and uses the phrase “Sudden drop offs” at the top of four bullet points.

Additionally, visitors can request whistles attached to a card with a wrist band. The card instructs people to watch swimmers in their party, the idea being that they will blow the whistle either if a child wanders out too far or if someone appears to need help.

These are helpful steps, although there are weak spots. At the big Boat Ramp C recreation area during last Thursday’s event, for example, the featured kiosk was missing its throw ring.

Whistle holders would need to be vigilant and not get distracted by a book or a screen.

And with only about 10 to 12 vests per kiosk, that’s just over 100 life jackets for a park that may attract 10,000 visitors on a hot weekend day.

The kiosks often do run out of vests at busy times, said Storm Smith, the Hillsboro Fire Department’s prevention and education division manager who administers the county’s SAFE KIDS program. In many cases, “the public has to bring their own equipment,” Smith said.

Winter acknowledged it’s a tough sell to get a young person to wear an unwieldy life vest.

In a spontaneous survey of park visitors after the press event last Thursday, Hillsboro resident Emily Hodges proved Winter’s point. The 19-year-old said her peers almost never wear life jackets, though they might do so if they go inner-tubing on a river.

Forest Grove resident Faith Sanchez, on the other hand, has three children age 11 and under. Having known someone who drowned in the Pacific Ocean, the 37-year-old mother said all three children wear their own life jackets at Hagg Lake.

Following the drownings last August, a local citizen posted clear warning signs at Sain Creek with the words “DANGER! HIDDEN DROP OFF” and drawings of a skull and crossbones and of a stick figure tumbling over a drop-off.

County officials removed and replaced those with their own signs that warned “CAUTION/WEAR A LIFE VEST/STEEP DROP OFFS.”

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: NANCY TOWNSLEY, JAKE THOMAS, DANIEL FORBES - Citizen activist Michael Medill created explicit warning signs to alert people to the drop-offs near Sain Creek. Washington County Parks officials replaced those with a toned-down version that still mentions drop-offs and caution, but then removed those in favor of  a life-vest picture with the words WEAR IT and an ambiguous drawing beneath.NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: NANCY TOWNSLEY, JAKE THOMAS, DANIEL FORBES - Washington County Parks officials put up signs that show a life-vest picture with the words WEAR IT and an ambiguous drawing beneath.NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: NANCY TOWNSLEY, JAKE THOMAS, DANIEL FORBES - Washington County Parks officials replaced citizen activist signs with a toned-down version that still mentions drop-offs and caution, but then removed those in favor of a life-vest picture with the words WEAR IT and an ambiguous drawing beneath.

But they then replaced those with another new sign that doesn’t mention drop-offs or danger. Instead, it features a drawing of a life vest, telling people in English and Spanish to “WEAR IT.”

A smaller drawing below shows two stick figures in the water, one standing on the lake bottom and one floating calmly over a drop-off. According to county officials, the picture intends to show the second person swimming safely in a life jacket. But citing the limitations of illustrations on aluminum signs, Winter acknowledged that it’s not entirely clear the two swimmers pictured are actually wearing life vests.

Other than that, Winter said he doesn’t think there’s any ambiguity in the sign. Given the half-dozen languages spoken by park visitors, he said, the pictograph was the way to go.

“The sign sort of says caution,” said Joque Soskis, an attorney visiting Hagg Lake from Florida last Thursday. “But I would plaster huge signs that say: ‘Danger! Sharp Drop-offs! Swim at your own risk.’”

By contrast, a fairly unambiguous sign at Boat Ramp C warns: “Caution: Debris in Lake,” with a picture of a motorboat about to hit something big and boxy.

As both Winter and Smith noted, it ultimately is left to the public to safeguard itself. That was confirmed by Gaston resident Ron Jordan, who was fishing at the lake last week. In an account corroborated by a fellow fisherman, Jordan said that twice on a single, windy day last summer, adults swam after inflatable toys that had been blown away by the wind — and kept swimming, with the toys always just out of reach, until they got in trouble. Both times, said Jordan, a middle-aged man took it upon himself to dash into the water for a risky rescue.

Experts say only strong swimmers or people trained in water rescue should try grappling with a panicked drowning person, although given their urge to save each other, the three family members last August might have ignored that advice even if they’d heard it.

“It was told to me that none of the deceased could swim,” wrote a detective who interviewed the surviving family members, although a separate report indicated 3-year-old Jeremy Scholl might have been learning how. In a turquoise wallet among the victims’ abandoned possessions was an aquatic center identification card with his name and photo.

Jill Rehkopf Smith contributed to this story.

Daniel Forbes is the author of ‘Derail this Train Wreck’ a novel on future rampant repression published by Fomite Press. He can be reached at ddanforbes@aol.com.

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