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In wake of drownings, where are the signs?

Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO: KEN BILDERBACK - In October 2012, less than a month after eight children nearly drowned while wading in the inviting waters off Hagg Lakes Sain Creek Picnic Area, Ken Bilderback snapped photos of the huge dropoffs the children were unable to see before stumbling over them Sept. 15. Hidden beneath the lakes surface, the dropoffs were exposed after the water receded over the next few weeks.In the wake of what may be the most horrific tragedy ever to occur at Henry Hagg Lake, some people are wondering why county officials haven’t put warning signs at one of the most beautiful, popular — and dangerous — swimming areas in the huge western Washington County park.

Sain Creek Picnic Area has a picturesque grove of giant Douglas firs and an inviting beach featuring a shallow wading area that seems ideal for young children who might not know how to swim.

But of 18 drownings at the nearly 900-acre lake since August 1980, 11 were in the relatively small and intimate Sain Creek inlet, according to statistics compiled by Gaston-area resident Ken Bilderback, who helped Eagle Scout Kyle Giesbers install and maintain the site's free loaner life jacket kiosk in 2009.

It was at Sain Creek Tuesday that four members of a Hillsboro family were found drowned: A 42-year-old mother, her 25-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, and her 3-year-old grandson (the daughter’s son).

Two park visitors found the 3-year-old floating face down in the water Monday night, along with belongings apparently abandoned by his family: cell phones, a cooler, beach towels, shoes, the family car and a little dog still dragging its leash. The Clackamas County Dive Rescue Team pulled the remaining three family members from the bottom of the lake around 1 p.m. Aug. 26.

“We don’t know if signs could have prevented this, but they might have,” Bilderback told KOIN 6 News last week. “At least if the signs had been there you could have thought, ‘Well, we did all we could.’”Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Forest Grove mother Robbie Pock added flowers Thursday to a memorial at the Sain Creek Picnic Area last week. The flowers joined some Love Rocks, a local craft and outreach phenomenon that sprang from the deaths of two Forest Grove sisters last year. Pocks daughter played in the water (pictured) while wearing a life jacket. Be aware it might drop off quickly, so go slowly, her mom called.

Rescuers speculate that one or two of the family members accidentally stepped over a steep dropoff in the water and that others tried to help, resulting in a mass drowning of people who either didn’t know how to swim or couldn’t escape the panicked grip of a drowning family member when they tried to help.

Bilderback was the volunteer public information officer for the Gaston Rural Fire District two years ago when a similar mishap — also in late summer — nearly claimed the lives of eight children, aged 6 to 13, and two parents trying to help them.

None of the near-victims apparently knew how to swim, but another family visiting the beach spotted them struggling and rushed to pull all 10 people from the water alive, including at least one who had sunk to the bottom and had to be revived.

Jessica MacLean, whose husband helped pull those children from the lake, was inspired to try to make the Sain Creek site safer. A senior at Pacific University, she dedicated her community-engagement project to raising awareness about the dangerous dropoffs there.

“It is so deceiving where the creek goes into that water,” she said. “I’m just wondering why — if we realize it’s an issue — why are we not addressing this?”

MacLean envisioned a warning sign or two either in or near the water.

She emailed Park Supervisor Todd Winter for suggestions about how to raise awareness and he suggested a public outreach project related to the life preserver loaner program.

MacLean said she tried to set up an appointment to talk more with Winter about warning signs, but he was apparently called out of town and the meeting never happened.

MacLean said she eventually gave up on the idea after attempts to connect with county officials fell through. But that surrender came back to haunt her after she learned of last week’s horrific drowning.

“I felt like I should have kept going with my project,” she said. “We tried to make this effort to get things changed and here it is in the same exact location — and now it ended badly. That’s what kind of hit me.”

When contacted last week, Winter referred the News-Times to Philip Bransford, the county’s communications officer, who said county officials take public safety seriously at Hagg Lake and Scoggins Valley Park (where the lake is located), but could not comment further until the Washington County Sheriff's Office completed its investigation into the drowning incident.

Washington County Board of Commissioners Chairman Andy Duyck, who lives in Verboort, said that to his knowledge, the issue of warning signs has never come before the county commission.

“I had this conversation with my wife last night,” he said Thursday. “It’s something that needs to be looked at.”

One complicating factor, Duyck said, is that the lake is managed by the Tualatin Valley Irrigation District, while the park is managed by Washington County. He said he would need to check on how the different jurisdictions overlap and who would be responsible for such signs.Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - A kiosk with free loaner life jackets was installed by an Eagle Scout in 2009 at the beautiful but dangerous Sain Creek Picnic Area. Many people, however, dont seem to understand why they might need a life jacket if they are just wading, not swimming.

In addition, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) owns both the park and the lake, and may have the final say about whether to designate safe swimming areas or erect warning signs.

After two Hagg Lake drownings in July 1990 (including one at Sain Creek), Bob Shroyer — facilities superintendent for Washington County at the time — told “The Oregonian” that the Bureau of Reclamation would have to make any decisions about adding designated swimming areas to Hagg Lake.

“Shroyer did not think the bureau approved swimming areas, however, because they increase the government's liability in a lawsuit,” the article stated.

Warning signs were apparently not discussed in the story, perhaps because those two drownings were not specifically tied to the dropoffs.

Recreation is not part of BOR’s mission, said Doug DeFlitch, field office manager for BOR’s Bend office. So when it built the Scoggins Dam, the BOR found a local partner — Washington County — to build and manage Scoggins Valley Park.

“We have an agreement,” DeFlitch said. If county officials want to change anything at the site — such as installing warning signs or designating a swimming area — they would need to discuss "rights and liabilities" with their BOR partners and “make sure it’s good with how we want to run the facility and run the lake,” DeFlitch said.

“In most situations, we wouldn’t have a problem with almost anything the county would want to do, as long as it’s within their scope and their budget,” he said.

Liability appears to be a valid issue for government officials.

In a case that just resolved Aug. 1, jurors found the state of Oregon 70 percent liable when they awarded $3.1 million to a surfer, Cole Ortega, who lost his arm in a 2008 collission with a dory boat at Cape Kiwanda.

According to the Tillamook Headlight Herald, the jury found the danger of collision was not "open and obvious to all" and that the state "was negligent in failing to provide adequate warnings of the danger."

The plaintiff's lawyer specifically mentioned the "absence of a warning sign."

Duyck said warning signs or other possible safety precautions would likely be discussed at an upcoming commission meeting.

Bilderback isn’t waiting for county officials. On his Facebook page last week, he offered to take an “ice-bucket challenge” to raise money for warning signs and quickly got one offer of $25 and another of $100. He’s also considering a Kickstarter campaign, which would allow the money to be returned if county officials somehow rejected the project — or if the county itself ended up covering the costs.

At the coast, he noted, “there are signs everywhere warning you about sneaker waves and undertows. Even if you know about (such dangers), it’s a friendly reminder.”

The kiosk offering free loaner life preservers at Sain Creek is helpful, but its signs don’t clearly explain why they might be needed. Nothing alerts visitors to dangerous dropoffs or points out people have drowned there.

Families could easily assume they won’t need life jackets because their young children would be wading, not swimming, said Bilderback.

Even before the 2012 near-drownings, he used to walk around the Sain Creek beach and talk to parents whose children weren’t wearing personal flotation devices — and who didn’t seem to think such precautions were needed.

“They’d be wading in two feet of water,” Bilderback said. “I’d say, ‘You know there are dropoffs out here.’ And in every single case, after I told them that, the parents would run up and get a life jacket.”

Bilderback’s Facebook post picked up some victim-blaming comments suggesting that the family made “stupid mistakes” by going into the water without — apparently — life preservers or adequate swimming skills.

But because of the seasonal water-level changes, the dropoffs can fool even longtime visitors, Bilderback said.

“If you’ve been going to Sain Creek for years in June and July, you’re used to wading out (safely) 50 feet or more. When the water is this low, the dropoffs are just a few feet out," he said.

“If this is the first time you’ve been there in September, you’re not an idiot if you walk out and fall in the channel."