Despite a small-scale rash of water-related deaths in Delaware County, local and state officials aren’t planning any drastic responses.
In a span of less than two months, two people have died after incidents at Alum Creek State Park, and another drowned in Hoover Reservoir.
On May 29, 40-year-old kayaker Shawn Leasure died helping a friend reach safety after her kayak flipped over in Alum Creek Reservoir. His body was recovered the next day.
About two weeks later, 17-year-old Abdiaziz Omar was “cliff-diving” with friends June 10 in Hoover Reservoir near Genoa Township when he disappeared under the water. He was pulled from the reservoir by rescue crews but died after being taken to Mount Carmel St. Ann’s hospital.
Most recently, 4-year-old Fatuma Hassan died after being reported missing July 8 at Alum Creek State Park. Rescue crews pulled her from the water and she was transported to a Nationwide Children’s Hospital facility in Lewis Center before being flown to the main Columbus branch of the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Despite the fact that she was pulled from the water, the Delaware County coroner has not officially ruled Fatuma’s death a drowning.
According to data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Fatuma’s death would be the only recorded drowning in the swimming area of a state park in Delaware or Franklin counties since at least 2012.
But the department isn’t quite ready to comment on the situation. Spokeswoman Carey Santiana said the department is waiting on a final coroner’s report before making an assessment.
“We don’t have a conclusive cause of death; the report is still ongoing,” she said. “Once we get some reports from them, we’ll be able to continue our investigation and have a solid cause of death.”
The department’s most recent recorded drowning related to swimming occurred in 2015 at Deer Creek State Park, with another in 2013 at Guilford Lake State Park.
But for boaters, the risks are greater – both on paper and in practice.
Leasure’s death marked the third year in a row with a boating-related drowning in Delaware County. According to ODNR records, drownings occurred in Delaware County boating areas in both 2015 and 2016.
Santiana said there isn’t necessarily a common thread among boating accidents – which include activities such as kayaking – and said the department looks at each on a case-by-case basis to see if they can improve the safety of an area.
In the case of Leasure, she said the department believes the incident was an isolated one.
“There has been nothing we can see to make us think it’s anything directly related to the other two (deaths since 2015),” she said. “There’s nothing we have found to make it seem like that is abnormal ... it’s just kind of a coincidence.”
In many cases, Santiana said, accidents are a result of simply ignoring existing regulations and safety suggestions. The department of natural resources recently implemented a campaign aimed at promoting the importance of life jackets after observing many boaters in the water without them.
Santiana also advises would-be swimmers or boaters to check the conditions on a given day. Water can be murkier on some days than others and can change temperature. The Ohio Department of Health also posts water-quality advisories at odh.ohio.gov when it may be unsafe to swim or boat.
Not included in the ODNR records are deaths that occur in Hoover Reservoir, one of the largest bodies of water in central Ohio. The reservoir supplies drinking water to the city of Columbus and is operated by the city’s watershed management department.
Despite the reservoir’s no-swimming policy – consistent with the city’s policy on all reservoirs – people often can be observed jumping into the reservoir from one of its makeshift beaches, which can lead to situations such as the death of Omar in June, officials said.
Columbus Watershed Manager Lorraine Winters Krzyzewski said it’s uncommon to see boating accidents in Columbus reservoirs, adding she believes people are aware of the no-swimming rules.
“Hot weather can definitely tempt people to cool off with a swim, even if it means swimming where prohibited,” she said. “When the weather is hot, watershed rangers monitor coves or shoreline locations, which can attract swimmers. Most people are aware that swimming in the reservoirs is prohibited.”
Because the watersheds are not meant for swimming, they can contain submerged objects, sharp drops and other perils that can be dangerous “even for experienced swimmers.”
Omar’s death in June was the first at Hoover since 2014, Krzyzewski said. Columbus also saw a drowning in 2016 at Griggs Reservoir on the west side of the city.
The fact that Hoover Reservoir sits within multiple jurisdictions can make responses tricky but also can mean there are typically plenty of first responders in the area of an accident.
The reservoir falls in parts of Genoa Township, Westerville, Delaware County and Blendon Township jurisdictions.
Genoa Township police Lt. Rich Lyon said the groups work together in a “good collaboration” for most incidents.
“If something happened out in the middle of Hoover, especially up north, it may be like, ‘Who’s actually the lead on this?’ but at the same time, both agencies are going to respond anyway,” he said, “especially if we’re talking about a loss of life or something.”
Lyon has seen a variety of intentionally or accidentally unsafe behaviors on the reservoir, and said like Santiana, he couldn’t identify any common thread.
“I’ve seen vehicles driven in accidentally; I’ve seen vehicles put in on purpose; I’ve seen people intentionally jumping into water; I’ve seen people intoxicated boating; and I’ve seen people who weren’t even intoxicated jump in and struggle (to swim),” he said. “So I wouldn’t say there’s any pattern to it.”
But even Genoa Township police are instructed to stay out of the water. Lyon said he can’t promise an officer wouldn’t jump in to assist someone, but even their capable swimmers tend to adhere to the city’s no-swimming policy.
“I would agree it’s very unsafe water to be in,” Lyon said.