Effort to post lifeguards on Hunting Island beach heads to Columbia

emoody@beaufortgazette.comDecember 26, 2013 

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Fire and rescue services searches for three missing swimmers who went missing July 14, 2013, near a campground at Hunting Island State Park.

SARAH WELLIVER — Staff photo Buy Photo

  • Staying safe in the water

    Hunting Island State Park officials offered these tips for staying safe in the water:

    • Use the buddy system and don't swim alone.
    • Don't venture too far from shore. Gauge the currents in shallow, knee-deep water before heading out farther.
    • Instead of fighting a rip current, swim parallel to the shore to escape.

No one can say with certainty lifeguards would have prevented any of the six drownings off Hunting Island State Park beach in the last four years.

Nevertheless, a group of Beaufort residents is arguing lifeguards could reduce deaths in the future.

"We don't believe that just because we put lifeguards out at Hunting Island, there won't be people that drown," Hilton Head Island attorney Russell Patterson said. "But lifeguards do a lot of proactive stuff and don't let people get in dangerous situations. They have a lot of rules and protocols in place and that goes a long way to keeping people from getting into trouble."

Patterson, whose family has had at least one cabin on the island for 30 years, is spearheading a group of concerned residents. They were spurred to action after Tiem Mok, 38, of Chesnee; his son, Nathan Mok, 16; and his nephew, Mikey Phomma, 17, drowned in July.

Patterson is set to make a presentation before the S.C. Legislature at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 9 and argue his case for lifeguards at the beach.

Ralph Wagner, director of Shore Beach Services, which contracts with the town of Hilton Head Island to provide lifeguards, has been advising Patterson on what would be effective and efficient coverage.

Rough estimates are for start-up costs of $41,000, and annual costs of $95,000, Patterson said, although he is still crunching numbers. He envisions one lifeguard at the campground and another two or three in popular areas of the beach. They would be on duty from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Patterson said he believes Hunting Island has enough visitors and generates enough money to support a lifeguard program, based on information he received in a Freedom of Information Act request to the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Leisure.

"We've always believed that and now we have the exact numbers to confirm it," he said.

In the fiscal year 2012-13, the park earned $1.35 million in excess of the $1.83 million it cost the state to maintain it. More than 1 million people visited, according to the records.

Some of that profit should be used to keep Hunting Island visitors safe, instead of supporting parks in other parts of the state, Patterson said.

"We don't think lives in Beaufort should be lost so they can fund (another park) that no one is going to," he said.

Hunting Island has not had lifeguards since 1998, and the reference to them in the state budget was taken out in 2003. Previous park managers have said the program ended mainly because it was difficult to find employees.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

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