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Swimming continues at Fredericksburg quarry despite teen’s death

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A teen jumps off a cliff at Fredericksburg Quarry with friends on Tuesday afternoon. An 18-year-old drowned Monday evening at the site west of the Interstate 95 bridge. The property is posted with ‘No trespassing’ signs. / Photos by Scott Julian

A teen jumps off a cliff at Fredericksburg Quarry with friends on Tuesday afternoon. An 18-year-old drowned Monday evening at the site west of the Interstate 95 bridge. The property is posted with ‘No trespassing’ signs. / Photos by Scott Julian

Less than a day after a drowning at the Fredericksburg Quarry, a group of local teenagers spent their afternoon jumping from the cliffs into the crystal clear, sea green waters that had just claimed one of their peers.

Anthony Mandel Johnson Jr., 18, of Triangle drowned in the quarry Monday evening during a swim with friends.

Swimmers leap from the side of a cliff at the quarry near the Rappahannock River on Tuesday.

Swimmers leap from the side of a cliff at the quarry near the Rappahannock River on Tuesday.

The group of young men and women jumping off the high, steep walls of the quarry said they knew about the drowning, but felt they were taking precautions to stay safe.

“You need to be ready,” said Garrett May, 18, who was one of the first to take the precarious plunge off the rocks. “This is a place where something like [a drowning] can definitely happen.”

From about 50 feet above the waters surface, the group pointed out various swimming spots in the quarry. There are two rope swings that allow adventurous swimmers to swing out over the shallows like a pendulum and fall into the deeper water farther out in the quarry.

Johnson was swimming toward one of these ropes with a friend when he began to struggle in the water, police said. His friend and other people who were at the quarry tried to help him, but they couldn’t pull him out of the water to safety.

The steep rock cliffs of the quarry in many places make it difficult for tired swimmers to lift themselves out of the water in an emergency, said Natatia Bledsoe, city police spokeswoman.

The cliff divers at the quarry said they used a rope that extended into the water to drag themselves onto the land and climb back to the top of the cliffs again.

The quarry, located just west of the Interstate 95 bridge along the Rappahannock River, poses a number of threats to swimmers. One major danger of the quarry is that it is unmonitored, and therefore no safety measures are in place to protect residents, Bledsoe said.

The water, which is shallow and clear enough to see a sunken wooden boat at the bottom in one place, becomes extremely deep in other areas.

The Fredericksburg Quarry is used by divers, kayakers and emergency crews for water-rescue training. Others who go there without permission risk being charged with trespassing on private property.

The Fredericksburg Quarry is used by divers, kayakers and emergency crews for water-rescue training. Others who go there without permission risk being charged with trespassing on private property.

“There’s a kind of sandy beach on one side where the water is warm,” Bledsoe said. “But then [the temperature] drops off precipitously and gets very cold where the water gets deep.”

The cliff jumpers said the water was very cold if they went far under the surface. But just at the top of the water, where they were swimming, “the water was perfect,” said Chris Devlin, 18.

The group did note an unexpected danger that they had noticed while swimming in the quarry.

“The water is so clean, there’s no salt or sediment in it,” Devlin said.

The lack of salt or sediment contributes to a loss of buoyancy that makes it more difficult to swim, he said.

“If you stop swimming and just hold your breath, you could sink right to the bottom,” May added.

The group discovered the diving spot after a friend posted a video on Instagram, Devlin said. In the video, a friend recorded himself cliff jumping with a GoPro camera.

Below the surface, in the depths and shallows, debris and vehicles litter the quarry floor. In shallow water, the sandy bottom is visible and objects are easy to avoid. But in deeper water, it is not so clear what lurks underneath.

Bledsoe said that scuba divers and dive teams with fire departments use the quarry for training for these exact reasons. The quarry is deep enough to dive, and the objects at the bottom provide obstacles for divers to use in practice dives.

But these divers have to obtain express permission from the property owner before using the quarry waters, Bledsoe added.

Because the property is privately owned, “No trespassing” signs are displayed prominently near the water. City officials list the owner as Rappahannock Quarry West LLC.

But the public hiking trails that surround the quarry make it difficult to keep trespassers out of the water on hot days.

Police respond to calls they receive about trespassing at the quarry, and when officers are available they patrol the quarry proactively, Bledsoe said. Patrols will be increasing over the summer months to prevent another drowning.

Anyone caught trespassing in the quarry waters could be subject to a citation, fine or even arrest. In a June 30 list of police incidents, four people were listed as arrested for trespassing at the quarry.

There have been two deaths in the quarry due to drowning in the past eight years.

In the first incident, in 2006, a 19-year-old University of Mary Washington student drowned in the quarry during a swim with his friends.

At the 2006 scene, emergency workers said they couldn’t recall responding to another drowning death at the quarry in preceding years.

Though there’s no indication drinking took place Monday evening or Tuesday, paths around the quarry leading to the cliffs are littered with old beer bottles and empty, discarded Corona boxes. At some point previously, people were apparently drinking while enjoying the quarry waters, a dangerous combination.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol is involved in 70 percent of deaths associated with water recreation and almost a quarter of all emergency room visits for drowning victims.

Water-safety experts have stressed that life jackets should be worn when swimming in an open body of water.

About 10 people drown in the United States every day, and statistically, only two of those people are children under the age of 14, making drowning the fifth-biggest accidental killer in the nation. And it is a killer that mostly strikes adults.

Still, many people don’t think the calm and beautiful water at the quarry is a hazard.

Even after a drowning on Monday, people were loading kayaks into the water, scuba diving and swimming in the clean, clear water to escape the heat.

“[The quarry is] not like something you think you’d see in Northern Virginia,” Garrett May said. “It looks like something in Jamaica.”

Katie Shepherd 540/374-5417; kshepherd@freelancestar.com

 

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