For the first time, Channel 2 Action News is hearing from the family of a man who drowned in Lake Lanier trying to save someone's life

Caution, vigilance urged for swimmers, boaters after Lake Lanier drownings

As temperatures climb, throngs of people flock to Lake Lanier, 38,000 acres of refreshing blue waters and picturesque scenery.

Unfortunately, the risk of drowning rises with the warmer weather.

Six days after being pulled from Lake Lanier in serious condition, a 9-year-old Hoschton boy has died, authorities confirmed. 

The child, identified by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as Ethan Chen, died about 2 p.m. Wednesday at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Channel 2 Action News reported. His father, who was also pulled from the lake, remains at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in critical condition. The department identified him as Libao Chen, 30, also of Hoschton. 

Last Thursday, the pair went underwater at the beach near Margaritaville at Lanier Island, Hall County fire spokesman Zach Brackett previously told The father went into the water after he noticed his son had not surfaced. 

The father then slipped under the water, and he didn’t reemerge until lifeguards and bystanders on the beach found him and boy, Brackett said. Lifeguards attempted to resuscitate both of them until paramedics arrived.

Last month, Corey Brown, 28, jumped off a pontoon boat on the lake to save a friend struggling in the water. Instead, currents swept Brown under the water, prompting a days-long search that ended tragically.

Authorities recovered Brown’s body a few days later near Vann’s Tavern Park in Forsyth County.

Corey Brown was the ninth person to die on Lake Lanier this year, according to game wardens.

Brown’s fiancée, Jasmine Smith, said Brown was a good swimmer, and they had hoped to find him on the shore.

“If I was there to know that he had been outside all day, swimming all day, I knew he would automatically be tired,” Smith told Channel 2 Action News. “I would have told him before you do anything — try to save anybody — just make sure you have a life jacket.”

There have been 10 water-related deaths at Lake Lanier this year, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The deaths include eight drownings and two boating fatalities, which can also be a drowning but are counted separately when a person enters from the water from a vessel in motion.

Other recent drownings at Lake Lanier include two over Memorial Day weekend: One man drowned after his personal watercraft overturned on Lake Lanier, and another man drowned near a boat dock. Last year, Lake Lanier saw 11 water-related deaths including eight drownings and three boating-related fatalities. And the first half of this year has already surpassed the deadly toll of 2017 when there were seven water-related deaths including five drownings.

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Drowning is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, with about 4,000 incidents annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2018 report by Safe Kids Worldwide and Nationwide’s Make Safe Happen program estimates 1,000 children drown every year, with 70 percent of the drownings taking place from May through August.

At a time when many head to the region’s lakes, streams, pools and waterfalls to cool off and enjoy summer, the message from water safety experts is not to stay out of water, but to understand the risks and take precautions.

Swimming in an open body of water - such as a river, lake or ocean - poses even more risks than a pool. Along with decreased visibility, open bodies of water can have unpredictable and strong currents, and sudden drop-offs, and even experienced swimmers may struggle in the colder water of lakes and rivers.

Experts say wearing a life jacket should be routine, especially in deep waters, just like putting on a seat belt. But persuading people to change habits, and a mindset, can be difficult.

“At Lanier, they are in a recreational environment, not in a car going to work,” said Lt. Col. Johnny Johnson of the Law Enforcement Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “People at the lake, they like to kick back and they are in that mind set of having a good time. They just see the good time, and they don’t see the dangers of water. And water is an unforgiving thing. That’s why we educate, educate, educate.”

Johnson points out that many of the people who drown or are rescued in open waters are strong swimmers. But distances between shorelines can be very deceiving. The weather can change quickly. A swimmer can jump off a boat and get a leg cramp, hit their head or experience what’s known as a “cold water gasp,” when the immediate shock of the cold water can cause involuntary inhalation, and that first gasping breath can fill one’s lungs with water. Even the strongest swimmers can be overcome by these conditions.

Another dangerous factor in the mix can be alcohol, which can dull senses and impair judgment.

“We believe all of the drownings could have been prevented with a life jacket,” Johnson said.

Georgia law requires all boats must have at least one U.S. Coast Guard–approved and properly fitting personal flotation device, also referred to as a life jacket, for each person on board. Georgia law also requires all children younger than 13 wear a life jacket while on board a boat. Even though adults and people 13 and over are not required to wear a life jacket, experts recommend everyone wear a life jacket at all times because there’s little to no time to put one on in an emergency situation.

Tommy Oswald plays with his daughter Emery, 2, in Lake Lanier at Mary Alice Park in Cumming. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Every year, tens of millions of people visit lakes, rivers, ponds and streams throughout the state and the number is on the rise thanks to a strong economy and low gas prices, according to Johnson. He said when people have money to buy gas for their boat – and gas prices are relatively low – more people head to open waters. The number of annual visitors to Lake Lanier is nearly 12 million visitors, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Johnson said it was about 9.5 million just two years ago.

Joseph Hughes, a 22-year-old student at Kennesaw State University, visits Mary Alice Park at Lake Lanier as many as two times a week during the summer months. On a recent morning, the Cumming resident rested on a towel and listened to country music on a portable radio, the songs mixed with the sound of soft waves hitting shore. He also loves the water, and often goes on out a Jet Ski and sometimes explores the water by boat with his father, Bill Hughes. He said his father always insisted he wear a life jacket any time he is on a boat, a habit he said he continues when going out on a boat with friends his age.

Meanwhile, also at the park, Daphne Bond-Godfrey of Decatur played in the sand with her 3-year-old son, Winston. Not even in the water, he was still wearing his life jacket. She said she’s already enrolled her son in swim lessons, and he’s about to complete a second session.

“The drowning statistics are scary,” said Bond-Godfrey. “You have to be extra vigilant.”

Tommy Oswald his daughter Emery Oswald, 2, Phillip Godfrey (C) Winston Godfrey, 3 and Kelli Oswald cool off in Lake Lanier at Mary Alice Park on Lake Lanier in Cumming. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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