Stronger signs supported after latest Silver Sands sandbar tragedy

It looks like the latest tragedy at Silver Sands State Park hasn’t elicited much more than a promise for stronger signs warning of the dangers of walking on the sandbar that runs from the beach to Charles Island.

There was definitely talk earlier this week when city and state officials got together about the state securing more lifeguards so there are always three stationed at Silver Sands. The city even offered to help with training, since Milford runs a rigorous lifeguard training course for its own city lifeguards.

But while ensuring lifeguarding is adequate most certainly seemed a goal, and the state will likely work with the city on training, state officials implied that’s all contingent on the state budget, and right now there are serious state budget problems.

“We had a positive and productive discussion of issues related to public safety at Silver Sands State Park,” Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) spokesman Dennis Schain said about the meeting held in Milford Tuesday. “We appreciated the concerns expressed by [State Rep. Kim] Rose and other Milford officials and we committed to working closely with them to take the most effective steps possible to address them.

“Two key areas of focus coming out of the meeting are exploring options for new signage that will convey a stronger message about the dangers of walking out on the sandbar and more consistent staffing of lifeguards at that beach,” Schain said.

But, he added, “The number of lifeguards we can actually deploy there is dependent on the state budget and the availability of funds.”

Lifeguard hours have already been scaled back at Silver Sands and other state parks because of budget problems.

Last June, the state announced it was cutting Milford from seven to five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, rather than staffing the beach with lifeguard the entire week. This year, Schain said the state’s current goal is to have lifeguards on duty at Silver Sands Thursday to Sunday, “although we have not been able to do that all the time,” he said.

There were no lifeguards on duty Friday, July 21, when George Swaby, a 28-year-old Bridgeport resident, was swept from the sandbar and drowned.

Schain said recruiting lifeguards is difficult, and therefore the supply of lifeguards is just as much an issue as the state budget.

Schain also pointed out that the sandbar is technically outside the designated swim area at Silver Sands, which is the main focus for the lifeguards when they are there.

But state and city officials think that having the lifeguards at Silver Sands is a good idea, and has helped avoid some serious problems.

It was Swaby’s death that triggered this latest meeting about safety at the park. The young man’s death, however, is just one more in a string of tragedies and near tragedies that have occurred as people have been swept from the sandbar.

Last July, tragedy was narrowly averted when Milford firefighters used three marine vessels, including a jet ski, to rescue two adults and eight children from the sound after the group ran into trouble when they were crossing on the sandbar. The group had walked out to Charles Island but misjudged the tide and became overcome with sweeping waters while attempting their return to shore.

The September before, the Milford Fire Department rescued two people from the waters off Silver Sands State Beach after the people were swept off the sandbar. Fire officials were on the scene, actually training for that exact situation, when the people needed help.

In July of 2015, Milford firefighters rescued three people from nearly drowning there. The three people, ages 23, 20 and 17, were making their way to the island, unaware that the tide was coming in.

In 2011, a 34-year-old Hamden man was swept from the sandbar and drowned. The incoming tide knocked him into the water and the strong current and undertow carried him to his death, officials said at the time. His widow later asked that the sandbar be closed to people.

In the month preceding that, there were several rescues on the sandbar when people were caught by the tide.

The stretch of sand and rock leading from the park to the island is actually a tombolo,, uncovered during low tide but otherwise covered by water. Local officials are constantly cautioning people to know and understand the tide before venturing onto the tombolo.

While local officials, including Mayor Ben Blake, described Tuesday’s meeting as positive, the mayor wasn’t thrilled with the outcome. He said it makes sense to have lifeguards at Silver Sands Beach seven days a week in the summer, but that doesn’t appear to be something the state will do.

Years ago, the city used to provide lifeguards at Silver Sands, but the state has since taken over the beach because it is part of a state park.

Mayor Ben Blake and Rose both quoted state officials as saying it would cost $30,000 to fully man the beach with lifeguards for the summer, and they seemed chagrined that the state isn’t ready to spend that kind of money, especially when there is money earmarked for improvements at Silver Sands.

Stronger signs are great, the mayor said, “But we think that’s not enough,” he added.

Rose said the meeting on Tuesday included local firefighters, police, state DEEP representatives, a park ranger and others, and she said there was thorough and constructive talks about safety at the park and the response time and other factors involved when Swaby was swept from the sandbar in July. There was talk about providing life jackets, but officials thought that might encourage people to walk the tombolo; there was talk about some kind of flotation device positioned in that area, but officials thought that would interfere with boating traffic; they talked about a siren that would sound when people need to get off the sandbar, and they talked about lifeguards, when they are there, posting warning flags when the incoming tide poses a threat to people walking on the sandbar.

All those ideas will be further discussed by the DEEP, and the city will be in contact with them, Rose said.

But Rose also said the state, in not manning the beach full time with lifeguards, is being “penny wise and pound foolish” noting that not only are these accidents tragic, but they also could result in lawsuits that would cost the state more than $30,000.