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Death toll climbs at San Luis Pass

Clear Lake swimmer is fourth to drown recently in treacherous waters
Minh Dam and Jayme Frase, Houston Chronicle
Updated 10:40 pm, Sunday, June 23, 2013
  • A Beach Patrol member checks out an area in Galveston. Experts says the San Luis Pass is especially dangerous because of currents that can carve a 7-foot hole where a day before the water was only knee deep. Photo: Carlos Antonio Rios, Staff Photographer / Houston Chronicle
    A Beach Patrol member checks out an area in Galveston. Experts says the San Luis Pass is especially dangerous because of currents that can carve a 7-foot hole where a day before the water was only knee deep. Photo: Carlos Antonio Rios, Staff Photographer

 

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The body of a 21-year-old swimmer was recovered in Galveston on Sunday, marking the fourth drowning in less than a month at the increasingly popular and ever-dangerous San Luis Pass.

An early morning jogger discovered the body of Marke Williams, a Clear Lake resident who disappeared Friday night as he and a friend swam in the San Luis Pass. Williams may have stepped off a sandbar and gotten caught in a tidal current, said Peter Davis, chief of Galveston Island Beach Patrol.

Once host to mainly just fishermen, the difficult-to-access stretch of shore on the western-tip of Galveston Island has started to draw thousands of party-goers, despite signs that warn, "No swimming. Dangerous currents."

"We're probably going to see more problems in this area," Davis said. "San Luis Pass has become quite the party spot."

In addition, video surveillance has been cut off for the first time in five years.

The result has been an unprecedented number of deaths this season. Since 2002, the San Luis Pass has had a total of 11 drownings, four of which have occurred since Memorial Day weekend.

Officials decided about five years ago to install cameras in rural areas with limited patrols, such as San Luis Pass, to better monitor beachgoers and swimmers. This year, the camera at the pass is not active because the U.S. company that marketed an Australian company's equipment, software and data analysis for the cameras went bankrupt in late 2012.

Galveston had signed up for the specialized service package when the company was attempting to expand into the United States, Davis said.

The company surpassed typical surveillance, Davis said, by combining remote-controlled cameras, which could spot swimmers up to a mile away and better withstand harsh weather, with a specialized archiving and analysis system.

San Luis Pass includes additional challenges because the bridge has no electricity to power it nor Internet to transmit the data. Previously a nearby condo owner, now also bankrupt, allowed the patrol to tap in.

Video by next summer

"We're basically having to rebuild it from scratch," he said. "We could not work through it before the beginning of summer. Now, 99 percent of our efforts go to patrolling."

He is confident the patrol will resume a form of video monitoring for next summer's season and hopes technology advances will help keep the price at, or below, the previous annual contract of $14,000 for monitoring three locations. Davis says that cost is lower than hiring an additional lifeguard.

Meanwhile, other Galveston authorities are now assisting with patrols the area. Davis has shuffled weekend duties on the west end to more closely watch the pass. After three drownings over Memorial weekend, beach patrol added bilingual warning signs down a new stretch of the 18-mile beach, recognizing that an old current has recently extended its dangerous reach.

Officials have said most drownings at beaches occur 30 feet from the shore among victims who are poor swimmers.

Davis recommends that people obey the warning signs posted on the beach and only swim in areas where a lifeguard is present.

"Generally, the farther east you go, the safer it is," Davis said.