Charity bay swim averts disaster, ebbs to fiasco Strong currents, weak safety plans bring shutdown, numerous rescues.

June 11, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

They started hitting the water off Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis at 8:10 a.m. Sunday, nearly 900 swimmers bent on crossing the Chesapeake Bay.

A few hours later, only 164 had crossed -- and the rest were being hauled from the chilly Bay by a flotilla of Coast Guard and civilian rescue vessels.

Among them were an 8-year-old girl who was treated for hypothermia, and a swimmer picked up by a boat two miles south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

A State Police Med-Evac helicopter was pressed into service, searching more than 20 square miles of water south of the bridge with an infrared scanner, looking for anyone who might have slipped through the net.

Meanwhile, the event's organizer was being arrested in Queen Anne's County for attempting to continue the next two legs of a planned "triathlon" event without a permit.

So ended the eighth annual Chesapeake Bay Bridge Swim, a fiasco that came perilously close to being a disaster.

Nobody drowned in the event, which was held to raise money for the American Diabetes Association.

But stronger-than-expected currents, and inadequate rescue plans by the event's organizer, Fletcher Hanks, of Oxford, led the Coast Guard to end the race at 10:15 a.m. and pull out anyone still in the water.

Participants had planned to swim a 4.4-mile course from Sandy Point to Hemingway's Restaurant on the far shore, staying between the twin spans of the Bay Bridge.

But an estimated two-knot current caused by the ebbing tide intervened, forcing hundreds of swimmers out of the course and below the bridge.

By 9:30 a.m., "I'm standing on the beach, watching literally hundreds of people get washed down to Virginia," recalled William Shamel, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Annapolis.

The event's rules called for anyone who strayed from the course to be pulled from the water by one of the 55 private rescue boats assembled by Hanks.

But the private fleet was simply unable to keep up with the number of swimmers buffeted by the current, said Shamel.

When a swimmer was found miles south of the bridge, said Shamel, "I hit the panic button . . . I determined that the sponsor did not have enough boats available to safely conduct the events."

He ended the event and summoned a fleet that included vessels from the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary and Department of Natural Resources.

A total of 720 swimmers were pulled from the water, though some of the swiftest finished the race. No one drowned, though some swimmers were treated for hypothermia.

Shamel blamed a combination of factors for Sunday's situation, including the strong current and the "woefully inadequate" resources Hanks had mustered for rescue.

He said the Coast Guard had granted permission for the event based on an original application specifying 55 rescue boats. The organizer later said he would produce 72 rescue vessels, said Shamel -- but was allowed to go ahead with the minimum.

Hanks, meanwhile, admitted that there was an inadequate number of rescue boats, but said that the current was "stronger than we had ever experienced in the eight years."

He added that "many swimmers told me that they were off course, but the rescue boats let them stay off course and in the race."

Hanks, who has organized all eight of the annual events, rejected suggestions that the swim should not have taken place.

"The conditions were ideal, except for the current," he said.

Though there are no specific qualifications for participating in the event, Hanks said swimmers should be able to swim 45-minute miles for at least three miles.

Hanks' troubles didn't stop when the swimmers left the water.

At about 12:30 p.m. that same day, he was arrested for attempting to continue the next two legs of the planned charity "triathlon" without a permit.

The event called for 35 competitors to complete the swim, run 13 miles to Queenstown along Md. 18 and then ride bicycles another 76 miles along Md. 304 and other roads to Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Hanks previously had been denied a permit for safety reasons, and was told again Sunday that he could not run the event without a permit, according to Lt. Gar Menefee, commander of the Centerville State Police Barracks.

Hanks argued that no permit was necessary because the two land events were not a competitive race with prizes.

He was arrested when he refused to call off the event and was charged with the misdemeanor of failing to obey a lawful order of the police. He was released on personal recognizance.

Police also arrested a participant in the event, Philip D. Edelen, 30, of Chestertown, on a charge of failure to obey a lawful order for attempting to continue in the event.

"By all means, I'm going to contest it," said Hanks. "My position is going to be that a person can run on any road that does not have a sign posted prohibiting it."

Menefee, however, said that "the problem with the event was the routes of travel are state routes that carry heavy traffic on the weekends."

He noted that some are single lane, 50 mile-per-hour roads with no shoulder, and "there's a very great safety concern, for not only the participants but the motoring public."

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