Milford legislator wants changes at Silver Sands State Park after most recent drowning
MILFORD >> There are five strong warning signs at Silver Sands State Park where the tombolo, or sandbar, to Charles Island begins at the shore.
“Danger” a sign says in big letters. “Sandbar floods twice daily with strong currents and undertow.”
The sign posted by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection stops short of saying not to take the trip to the island filled with lore, including that Captain Kidd buried his treasure there, but goes on to warn: “Do not hike on water covered sandbar.”
Yet, every year around low tide, hundreds take the walk on foot to the island over the sandbar covered by rocks and shells freshly tossed by the tide.
While the stretch is called a sandbar, it is a tombolo because it is a bar of sand that attaches the mainland to an island.
Charles Island is closed to the public from May through Sept. 9 to prevent disturbances to nesting birds, DEEP said.
Every year there are rescues of people who can’t make it back in time as the tide comes in or can’t make it out to the island as the tide goes out, the latter of which led to the July 21 drowning of Bridgeport resident George Swaby, 28, who was hit by a wave and sucked into a current.
Swaby was a novice swimmer, but the experts say that a strong current can be a challenge for the best swimmers.
Prior to Swaby’s drowning, the last fatality as a result of the walk was in 2011.
rose SEEKs CHANGE
But there are many rescue and distress calls from the park each year, and since June 15, there have been seven 911 dispatch calls for open water rescues, according to data obtained by state Rep. Kim Rose, D-Milford, whose 118th District includes Silver Sands.
Swaby’s drowning has reignited the discussion as to what can be done further to prevent tragedy and close calls.
Rose has sent a letter to DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee calling for a meeting with Milford leaders soon to discuss safety at the popular spot, and said she’ll consider anything up to banning walkers from the sandbar.
“Unfortunately, this seems to be a tragic or near-tragic story we hear of all way too often. The 2,500-foot-long tombolo has been notorious for putting lives at risk, and it’s unusual for a summer to go by without at least several emergencies,” Rose wrote to Klee.
“Although signage is posted on the beach warning beach-goers not to go out to the Charles Island Tombolo when water is visible, there are no lifeguards on duty to enforce the policy,” she said.
DEEP does not provide lifeguards because it is listed as a no-swim area, Rose notes in her letter, going on to say that while the state may save money by not providing lifeguards, “there is a tremendous amount of time, resources and expense that the Milford Police and Fire departments have to provide with search helicopters, divers, and even the Coast Guard and DEEP staff as well, to provide emergency response.”
‘SHOULD BE CLOSED OFF’
“My own personal opinion is that it should be closed off — it’s dangerous,” Rose said. “Nobody has any business being out there.”
DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said his agency awaits a full report on Swaby’s drowning and, as always, will evaluate whether more can be done.
Schain noted the extensive warning signs and the presence of DEEP patrols, but said a ban would be difficult to enforce.
On a recent weekday evening at low tide just days after Swaby’s body was found, the sandbar to Charles Island was bustling with walkers, some of whom were aware of the drowning and some who weren’t.
Some who were aware of the tragedy said they were there because they were enthralled by the danger.
Swaby’s body was found by walkers to Charles Island.
Two DEEP officers patrolled the sandbar in a vehicle, advising walkers not to go beyond a certain point that was not as far as Charles Island, and telling them to consider they have a half hour rather than an hour, to make it out to the island and back.
Renee and Joseph Williams, along with their daughter, Nya, 12, were visiting Silver Sands for a few days on a getaway from New York state, as they did last summer.
The couple said they are in love with the serenity at Silver Sands and have watched the walkers out to Charles Island and how fast the sandbar/water situation can change when the water comes in.
The family has never walked all the way out.
“I don’t trust it. I don’t want to be stranded,” Renee Williams said.
Her husband added: “People need to follow rules, not break rules and it will be safe.”
what are the rules?
Schain said people need to use “common sense, good judgment” and “know your strengths and limitations.”
The trouble arises when people wait too long and come back from the island when water is rising, according to the experts, or who start out to the island before the tide has receded.
Police spokesman Mike DeVito said the sandbar area to Charles Island has tricky natural elements, including currents and an undertow that can result in the lower half of the body being strongly pulled out into Long Island Sound.
He said “panic” can quickly set in for those who don’t expect it and panic causes “a host of reactions in the body that decrease the likelihood of survival.”
DeVito said anyone taking the trip should be a strong swimmer, as opposed to just being able to swim.
He said when the tide comes in, the water level changes a foot per hour and the depth of the water over the sandbar can vary 6 to 7 feet, depending on the lunar cycle.
What the sandbar looks like when you approach the island “could change a lot in two to three hours,” he said.
“Most people don’t have enough knowledge,” about the water, DeVito said. “It looks inviting, but it’s going to change quickly,” so the path you go out on will not look like the path coming back.
On the recent weekday, at about 7 p.m., Hannah Smith, 21, and her brother, Luke Smith, 17, of Trumbull, took a walk out to the island with Hannah’s godson, Chance Jeffrey Adams.
“I want to get trapped on the island,” Luke Smith said, although his sister assured him it wasn’t going to be that kind of walk. And upon hearing of the drowning, they sped it up.
Some walkers from Bridgeport, who declined to give their full names, said they were there to try the walk themselves after hearing about the recent tragedy.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Cristian, 22. “A lot of people walk on the sandbar — you just have to be careful.”
Schain said “unfortunately” some people are drawn to natural attractions when there’s risk, and DEEP sees that at some other locations, including Enders Falls in Granby and Squantz Pond in New Fairfield.
Mayor Ben Blake, in an email, said the city would “much prefer” to see a safe beach with lifeguards than the state’s planned $10 million build-out of Silver Sands to include “massive ticket booths, maintenance facilities, and beach-side administrative offices that no one wants at the same time this state government is facing this enormous deficit and slashing funding everywhere.”
Blake, Rose and other legislators are fighting hard to halt the project, saying the park should remain as it is — a natural environment — and fearful Silver Sands will become overcrowded and create parking problems in the neighborhood.
Schain said a quarter million people visit Silver Sands in the season, and on weekends it’s often filled to capacity, so he doesn’t know how many more people it could draw.
But, Schain said, with the addition of amenities, those people would be able to “use a bathroom and have a hamburger.”