Saturday, June 24, 2017

Dangers Of Blue Holes

MAYS LANDING — A hot summer day in South Jersey means finding the closest body of water to cool off in. From the Pinelands to the shoreline, there are plenty of guarded beaches and lakefronts.
But some people still swim at their own risk at abandoned sand quarries, despite the dangers of the so-called “blue holes.”
“I can see the appeal,” said Glenn Hausmann, chief of the Hamilton Township Dive Team. “But the danger is much greater than people think.”

An unmarked road off Leipzig Avenue leads to an old sand quarry, where mining pits are filled with rainwater, runoff and cold groundwater. The water looks calm, but under the surface, the pits can be as deep as 60 feet, their steep sides a mix of soft silt, clay and gravel.
The dangerous conditions can create situations where the township’s all-volunteer dive team is needed.
On June 12, the township dive team — with aid from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Collings Lakes, Laureldale, Mays Landing and Richland fire companies, township police and EMS, AtlantiCare medics and the Brigantine dive team — spent three hours searching for the body of Lenyn Mercedes-Payamps, 23, of Pleasantville, who had drowned in a Thelma Avenue quarry hole.

On Thursday, that quarry’s gates stood closed and locked, presumably by the property owners.
“The odds are, the people who come here are going to swim and go home — but the odds you’re playing with are too great,” Glenn Hausmann said.
At the Liepzig Avenue pit, certified lifeguard Devon Hausmann showed how drastically the water conditions and underwater landscape can change.
Wearing a wetsuit, safely tethered and monitored by other dive team members, he waded into the water, which quickly went from ankle-deep and 80 degrees, to over his head and frigidly cold.

“It’s got to be 40 degrees,” he said after he surfaced.
He said the temperature change can shock a person’s system, adding to an already difficult struggle in the water.
“The sand is soft,” he said. “It will cave in naturally, but when someone is trying to reach land, it will sink underneath them.”
Unlike the bottom of a lake or other natural body of water, the floor and sides of a quarry hole are not compacted, and can shift or collapse, especially when struggling swimmers are trying to reach shore.

“In a matter of feet, I’m at my knees, then fully submerged,” Devon Hausmann said. With one step, the underwater landscape dropped 10 feet deeper.
Despite the dive team’s presence and recent news stories about the risks, people were still swimming at the Liepzig Avenue quarry Thursday.
Timothy Fitzgerald, 17, of Galloway Township, and his friends were swimming in one of the pits.
“There’s no sharks in here,” Fitzgerald joked when asked about the risks they were taking to swim there.
The teens said the quarry was a cool place to hang out and an alternative to nearby beaches and lakes.
“No one bothers us here,” Fitzgerald said.

While local officials know the area is often used for swimming, fishing and recreation, the areas are not regulated for safety or water quality because the quarries are private property — but typically, they are not maintained after mining operations have ended.
“At this point, you’re already trespassing,” Glenn Hausmann said. “Then there are the greater risks by getting into the water.”

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