Lake Ontario is a force of nature. Four fishermen were swept down river on Sept. 28 by fast rising water and two eventually died. Investigations of the incident are ongoing.
The accident on the Oswego River has drawn attention to safety concerns involving Oswego State students trekking out on a break wall leading to the West Pierhead Lighthouse at the entrance to Oswego Harbor. After the accident, Oswego Mayor Randy Bateman held a community meeting Wednesday to brainstorm ideas to enhance water safety.
The break wall, which forms the outer perimeter of the harbor, is accessible to the public without fences or barriers via the lakeshore behind the Oswego Steam Station on Sixth Ave.
There are also no laws prohibiting the public from accessing the break wall, which is popular among college students, fishermen and locals. However, Ray Lewis, chief of N.Y./P.A. operations maintenance for the Army Corps of Engineers, said walking on the break wall is dangerous because it is a brittle stone structure and was not designed for walking on.
"It’s definitely not a safe place to be… anytime you’re going out there you’re taking a risk," Lewis said.
The Army Corps owns and maintains the deteriorating break wall structure. The Army Corps does go out on the break wall to do inspections and repairs, but Lewis said the Corps takes safety seriously.
"When we go out there, everyone that’s on that break wall, that goes out there is wearing a life jacket," Lewis said.
Although there are no restrictions on the break wall, Executive Petty Officer Jardon Sprague of the US Coast Guard Station at Oswego, said people should be aware of the safety risks involved with walking on it.
"There’s a degree of risk involved with going out on the rocks," Sprague said.
The Coast Guard typically rescues several people in trouble on the break wall each year, including two Oswego State students last April. People often need help on the break wall because they misjudge the weather conditions, such as how high the waves are, or because conditions change rapidly before they can react, Sprague said.
Response time during rescues on the break wall can take longer than expected because of the difficult location. When the Coast Guard deploys a boat on scene, it can be difficult for the victim to get to the boat or for a rescuer to get to the victim’s location. During particularly rough weather, the Coast Guard often has to deploy a rescuer to a more suitable location farther down the break wall and work their way to the victim’s location; which poses a significant danger to the rescuer. Because the break wall and lighthouse are connected to land, the Coast Guard coordinates rescues with city rescue agencies.
The break wall is deteriorating and in need of repair, Lewis said. The west break wall extends a mile across the harbor to the lighthouse and part of that span is strewn with gapping holes in the wall and pieces of rebar jutting out. The deterioration of the wall is a result of decades of freezing, thawing and nonstop waves. The break wall was built in the 1880s and the West Pierhead Lighthouse was added in 1934.
"There’s actually large sections where if you don’t get your footing right, you’ll end up in the drink," said John Harris, a junior computer science major, whose friend twisted her ankle walking on the wall.
Consequently, the group Harris walked to the lighthouse with had returned slowly. The students did not get back to land until 8:30 p.m. Harris said getting caught on the break wall at dusk was an ordeal, but was part of why they went in the first place.
"It’s nothing special, it’s just it seems like a forbidden fruit kind of thing," Harris said. "We just assumed that because it was essentially dangerous that we shouldn’t be doing it. "
Despite the obvious danger, Oswego State students have continued to venture out onto the break wall. Some said they go for the photo opportunities. Other students see it as something every student must do while at Oswego State and it is not uncommon for people to get small cuts and scrapes while scaling the rocks.
"The walk itself is nice," said Kelsey Grievson, a junior adolescent education major. "It’s kind of a hike, but it’s interesting to walk along the water and see the different sides of the lake and then you get up there and I think it’s actually peaceful to sit down and have a conversation with somebody."
Grievson made a trip to the lighthouse wearing only flip-flops and ended up walking part way barefoot, something that Lewis strongly advises against. The structure was designed to protect the harbor and the waves slashing over the wall create a surface that is almost always slippery. There is also a danger of falling or getting a leg caught between the rocks.
"There’s no point in not appreciating something just because there’s danger," Grievson said. "There’s nobody forcing you, telling you for a school project that you have to go out there."
Lewis said the Army Corps is working on plans to post warning signs on all the break walls in the Buffalo district, which stretches from Toledo, Ohio to Messina, N.Y.