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Unseen hazards a factor in four holiday drownings
Two deaths brought holiday weekend toll to four
drowning port royale 3 jd
Forsyth County Sheriff's Office Chaplain Tim Davenport talks Sunday morning with the families of two men who drowned Saturday night in Lake Lanier. - photo by Jim Dean (previous profile)

Lake Lanier claimed the lives of four people over Fourth of July weekend, as the bodies of two Alpharetta men were found Sunday morning, just 20 feet from a sandbar on the Forsyth County side of the lake.

Lung Mang, 21, and Tha Thang, 23, drowned Saturday night during a storm, authorities said.

Their deaths came a day after 17-year-old Ariel Cotuc Chaudjay of Duluth drowned while swimming with his uncle and friends at Little Ridge Park in eastern Forsyth County.

Three of the four drowning over the long holiday weekend were on the Forsyth County side of the lake, with the fourth Saturday in Hall County.

The victims were all young men between the ages of 14-23. Two fell into unseen drop-offs in what otherwise appeared to be shallow water.

Such are the hazards on Lanier this summer, given the ongoing drought and historic low water level. Lake visitors can now reach areas that were previously far offshore and where the terrain is unpredictable.

For the year, six people -- all men -- have drowned in Lanier.

In Saturday night's drownings, Mang and Thang were with a group of nine people, including Mang’s brother and sister, on a rented pontoon boat.

Details of the incident remain under investigation, but Forsyth Fire Capt. Jason Shivers said the group was attempting to return to Port Royale, formerly Lan Mar Marina off Browns Bridge Road, before the storm about 11:30 p.m. Saturday.

When the pontoon boat struck a submerged obstacle, Shivers said, three people jumped into the water to free it. That was just as the storm struck. Two of them never made it back on board.

Family members told authorities that Mang and Thang could not swim. Reports indicate none of the nine passengers were wearing life jackets.

Alex Borbely, who saw the incident from his nearby houseboat, said the boat appeared to be operated by an inexperienced driver.

“That is a problem up here with these rental boat people that come up and don’t have the skills to drive, especially in bad weather,” Borbely said. “It’s unfortunate.

“I told them to slow down and warned them not to go out, because the weather was pretty bad,” he said. “They didn’t heed the advice.”

Other boaters docked at the marina said the storm was as strong as they’ve ever seen.

Selma Shapiro, who was on a houseboat with her husband, said she’s never seen waves like those on Lanier.

“Our boat never bumps the dock, and [Saturday] night during this storm it just kept banging against it,” she said.

The Forsyth County Fire Department’s Dive Team responded to the scene, as did the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol Unit and the Department of Natural Resources.

Due to the low light, however, the search was suspended.

One boat passenger was treated for a cut on his foot Saturday night and then released from Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.

Sunday morning, family members watched as firefighters used a sonar device to locate the bodies near the marina in northeastern Forsyth. They were recovered about 10:30 a.m. Sunday near Dock 5.

On Friday, Chaudjay's body was found in 10 feet of water, about 45 feet from the shore at Little Ridge Park, off Lanier Beach South Road. That's the same area of the lake where divers with the local fire department practice swimming drills.

A native of Guatemala, Chaudjay was at the lake with several friends who told sheriff's deputies the teenager knew how to swim.

Authorities have said the victim waded out knee deep into the water ahead of his friends, who thought he was waving.

They have ruled out alcohol and foul play, saying that the teen most likely came upon a steep drop-off in the underwater terrain.

The same scenario befell 14-year-old Dago Bento Mejia, who drowned late Saturday afternoon near Bells Mill Bridge in Hall County.

Witnesses told Hall authorities the teen from East Meadow, N.Y., went under water while swimming with family and friends and did not resurface.

Dive teams from both the Hall sheriff’s office and fire services searched the lake for about an hour before finding the body in about 11 to 14 feet of water.

With the weekend deaths, six people have drowned this year in Lanier.

In late May, a Gwinnett County man drowned off Van Pugh Park in Hall County.

The body of 46-year-old Ellenwood man was recovered in early June, about a month after he fell from a personal watercraft and went under near a fueling dock at Aqualand Marina near Flowery Branch.

In addition, a 45-year-old McDonough man was found dead July 2 on a boat near the service dock at Holiday Marina.
Authorities have said they believe the man was a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. Foul play is not suspected.

Last year, nine people drowned in the lake -- one over the Fourth of July holiday period at Buford Dam Park -- and two others were killed in boating accidents.