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Tuesday drownings cause confusion for rescuers
Dispatchers had trouble deciphering if incidents were related
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What happened on Lake Lanier Tuesday afternoon was tragic, rare and confusing.

First, at 30 seconds past 2:31 p.m., a man at Van Pugh Park called 911 to report a person had gone missing as several people swam near an island.

Thirty eight seconds later, a woman, who could only tell dispatchers she was somewhere near Friendship Road and a mass of boats and islands, reported people were in the water yelling for help.

Less than 30 seconds after she called, a man at a marina called 911 to say he'd received a call from a boat about a missing swimmer.

Before dispatchers could gather any more information, the call was disconnected.

Then, 29 seconds after the call from the marina, a woman called 911 from a boat to say her husband had been under water for at least five to 10 minutes.

In the moments that followed, dispatchers began to work with a situation that Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said he's never experienced in all his 20 years serving Hall County: two unrelated drownings reported in just as many minutes.

Dive teams recovered the body of 19-year-old Tomas Larumbe of Scottdale, who drowned while swimming near an island at Van Pugh Park, within two hours of the initial report of his disappearance in the water.

But the Department of Natural Resources and the dive team for the Hall County Sheriff's Office are still searching for the body of 48-year-old Fabien Gates of Powder Springs whose wife called 911 to say he had not resurfaced after jumping off a boat near Mountain View Park.

In the moments that followed those four initial calls, the county's emergency infrastructure was pushed to its limits and the ensuing response took a combination of resources from other counties, state agencies and private boaters.

As the calls reporting Tuesday's drownings came in, callers had little information of their whereabouts, and at first, dispatchers were uncertain whether the calls were in reference to one drowning or multiple incidents.

Dispatchers spent the next few minutes trying to figure out if the calls were related, using signals from Gates' wife's cell phone to determine where she was on the water.

Then, when they determined the events were unrelated, the county then faced the challenge of using the same radio channel to coordinate two separate responses to very similar-sounding events.

The county normally uses one radio channel, dubbed "Event Four," to handle fire and health emergencies on the lake.

As dispatchers and emergency responders began to coordinate resources for the two drownings on Event Four Tuesday, the radio chatter on the channel became "overwhelming," according to Leigh Stallings-Jarrell, the operations manager for Hall County's 911 emergency dispatch.

Responders from the Hall County Sheriff's Office and the fire department became confused over the directions to the various sites, said sheriff's office Col. Jeff Strickland.

"It was a hectic day," Strickland said.

But even as radio confusion was being cleared up, battalion chiefs were challenged with beefing up their lean crews.

The Hall County fire department has one marine rescue unit based out of Station 13 on Sardis Road.

Another 10-person dive team from the Hall County Sheriff's Office is used in recovery missions to search for bodies that have been submerged for more than one hour and are presumed dead.

Even on weekends — when the fire department boat is on the water and poised for lake-related emergencies — two lake drownings within two minutes is too much for Hall County's fire department to handle. The sheriff's office dive team is made up of employee volunteers, all who have separate duties in the sheriff's office.

"The county's not equipped for two calls like that at the same time," said Kimbrell.

Often, the county relies on mutual aid agreements with other first responders in the area to help cover emergencies on the lake.

On Tuesday, neither the Department of Natural Resources nor the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded to an initial radio call from Hall County dispatchers for any agency with a boat on the water.

Later, once it had been determined that there were two separate incidents, Cpl. Jason Roberson of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources responded by boat to the incident at Van Pugh Park, and Ranger First Class Mark Stephens responded by boat to the event near Mountain View Park, said Rick Lavender, a spokesman for the DNR. The corps also later responded, according to Strickland.

"You're coming off the July Fourth holiday weekend when all these guys had been working wide open, and the day after you are somewhat trying to catch your breath," Lavender said. "But you just respond. They're professionals."

The Forsyth County fire department was the first to step in to offer its resources to Hall County's fire department Tuesday.

Forsyth has a specialized dive team and another boat stationed at Port Royale Marina, according to Capt. Jason Shivers. At first, county dispatchers sent those units to Van Pugh, but with a second drowning at Mountain View, battalion chief sent both the Hall County marine rescue unit and a Forsyth unit there, since it was closer to both boats' launching points.

In the meantime, Kimbrell said the county fire department commandeered a boat at Van Pugh and worked with a resident the fire chief said was a scuba diver who knew the water in the area well.

As they waited on more resources, those who had responded to Van Pugh made surface dives and marked significant areas.

The 10-person sheriff's office dive team later arrived at Van Pugh and recovered Larumbe's body by 5:10 p.m. Once his body was recovered, the team spent the rest of the evening searching for Gates.

On Wednesday, the agencies were still searching for Gates' body in a half-mile square stretch of water.

The sheriff's office and DNR officials spent most of the day using a sonar device to scan for his body in water that ranged from as shallow as 10 feet to 100 feet deep, Strickland said.

The fire department's dive crew stood by as a back-up unit to help in any emergencies that might arise with divers.

Earlier on Wednesday, the agencies utilized cadaver dogs, but with no luck by 4 p.m, the crews packed up and went home.

The search continues today.

 

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