Lake Anna: Authorities step up safety measures after drowning

One month has passed since six-year-old Asa Gayle drowned in Lake Anna by Dike 3, the popular but extremely dangerous fishing spot, and though the new warning signs ordered by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have not yet arrived, the gap in the fence through which the girl fell has been repaired.

Gayle, of Richmond, fell into the lake by Dike 3 while fishing with her grandfather. Three hours later, despite rescue attempts by her grandfather and a bystander, she was found 30 feet below the water’s surface, dragged down by a powerful current.

Four red signs in the parking lot adjacent to Dike 3 tell visitors that only fishing is allowed and that “camping, swimming, loitering and public displays of alcoholic beverages are strictly prohibited.” Two more signs on either side of the dike bear the message, “No jumping from bridge.”

No signs, however, currently warn of the undertow that is strong enough to overwhelm even the most experienced swimmers. According to an interview with NBC 12 news, Major Donald Lowe of the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office said after the girl's body was recovered that signs with more urgent “verbiage” need to be put in place to show people that the area is a drowning hazard.

According to Lee Walker, the outreach director for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (the department that actually owns the property of Dike 3), the new signs have been ordered and will be erected in a few weeks, though not in time for the July 4th weekend. The new signs will read: "Danger drowning hazard. Sharp drop-offs and strong current."

As for the four-foot gap in the fence through which Gayle fell, the temporary strip of caution tape which was strung across the opening was replaced with a sturdy chain link fence on June 25, ensuring fishermen and visitors are less likely to slip into the water.

The water from Lake Anna is used to cool the steam at the Dominion Virginia Power plant and condense it back into water, after which it is then pumped back into the lake. According to Dominion’s North Anna Power Station website, the water is returned to the lake at Dike 3 “slightly” warmer than when it left, which can create currents. But the real culprit behind the overpowering undertow is the sheer amount of water being pumped through the system: two million gallons of water flow through the station every minute when the station is in full operation.

Dominion spokesperson Rick Zuercher admits that the water return system creates serious risks for would-be swimmers or for children like Gayle who fall in.

“Yes, it just creates a strong current when it goes through,” Zuercher said of the water discharge point by Dike 3.

The powerful current creates rippling on the surface of the water, but there are no waves or swirling whirlpools to indicate the strength of the undertow below. It's possible that neither Gayle nor her grandfather had any idea that the dangerous current existed. Her family members were not available to comment.

Gayle’s death was a tragic accident, and one from which the commonwealth could skirt liability, according to Hook legal expert David Heilberg.

"Sovereign immunity means you can't sue the king," he says. "Basically, you have a higher burden of proof when suing the government than a private company. You have to prove gross negligence." 

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I am so sorry for the family's loss. However, a No Swimming sign and a No Jumping from the Bridge sign should be sufficient for a responsible adult. Would an additional sign warning of the undertow made any difference here? Probably not. Young children do not have the balance and coordination, or the understanding of potential danger when they are around water. They need to be carefully watched, every second, so they aren't close to the edge. I am sure that her grandfather feels horrible, but he was responsible for her safety in taking her there. The commonwealth isn't "skirting liability" by not having a sign.

Agree with twinmom they must put a warning sign in order to prevent the accident.