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09/07/2005
Abandoned quarries pose serious risk for divers, swimmers

By JIM SALTER
Associated Press Writer

SULPHUR SPRINGS - On a blazing hot summer day, Daniel Hanlon and a few friends decided to beat the heat with a cooler of beer and a visit to a pond in a secluded, abandoned rock quarry in the Jefferson County hills south of St. Louis. �

According to Sheriff Glenn Boyer, Hanlon and his friends playfully jumped over crevasses on the rocky bluff overlooking the water. Suddenly, the 19-year-old lost his footing and fell, his head hitting a rock before he tumbled into the pond.

Hanlon's friends searched the murky water but couldn't find him. The Missouri State Water Patrol recovered the body hours later, near the base of the bluff.

So far this year, 15 people have drowned at abandoned or converted quarries or mines in the U.S., including four in Iowa, two in Pennsylvania and two in Missouri. Since 2000, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has recorded more than 100 drownings at old mines and quarries. "They're usually in out-of-the-way places, and it's very inviting on a hot day," Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the MSHA, said of the quarries. "It's been romanticized in movies like 'Breaking Away,' but people don't realize the dangers."

Thousands of abandoned rock quarries sit scattered from coast to coast. Missouri is home to hundreds of them.

Companies dig massive holes and mine limestone, marble, granite, gravel, sand. Rocks are taken by truck or conveyer through crushing and screening stages that eventually produce products of various sizes - from sand to gravel to larger rocks - to suit customer needs.

The mined material is finite. Some quarries produce for just 25 or 30 years, while others have been in existence for more than a century, said Gus Edwards, a spokesman for the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, an industry group based in Alexandria, Va.

When the quarry is spent, a massive hole is often left behind, some more than 100 feet deep. Some are reused as parks, golf courses, even amusement parks and housing developments, Edwards said. But in many cases, there aren't any real options. So companies fence off the quarry, post "No Trespassing" signs and do what they can to keep people away.

Meanwhile, rainwater eventually fills the abandoned quarry floor, which may be littered with old equipment, jagged rocks, limbs and other debris.

The isolation of the quarry, the cool water, the allure of jumping from a cliff, even the thrill of getting away with something, all can be attractive, especially to young people. Too often, they bring alcohol along for the outing.

Once they start drinking, "their judgment is totally gone," said Sgt. Ralph Bledsoe of the Missouri State Water Patrol. "Once their judgment is clouded, they make all kinds of mistakes. A lot of times, they're fatal mistakes."

It isn't just young people. Ten days after Hanlon's death, 42-year-old Allan Darnell of Hannibal was with friends jumping from a cliff 80 feet into the water that filled the abandoned Central Stone Rock Quarry in Perry.

Witnesses told the Water Patrol that Darnell watched a friend jump, then jumped himself, but too soon after the friend. The two collided in midair, bumping heads. Darnell went under the water and did not resurface. His body was recovered two hours later.

Quarries pose several hazards that aren't immediately obvious to intruders. Bluffs tend to be unstable, and many people drown after falls.

Danger lurks below the water, too, where jagged rocks, debris, vegetation and abandoned machinery can't be seen.

"They'll go diving in and hit barbed wire, glass, old machinery," Louviere said. Some jump from ropes or cliffs, get the wind knocked out of them or lose consciousness when landing awkwardly in the water, and drown.

The depth of the water can also be misleading.

"It might not be as deep as you think it is and you might break your neck," said Boyer, whose office is often called to quarries such as the one where Hanlon died.

And unlike a pool or a beach, there isn't necessarily a shallow end of the water.

"If you're jumping off the bluff end, there's no place to get out of the water," Bledsoe said. "If you jump and you get the wind knocked out of you, you've still got to swim a distance to get out of that water. I don't think kids think about that when they jump off bluffs."

In June, Ryan Spaeth, 22, of Norwalk, Conn., was swimming with three friends in the pond of an abandoned quarry when he couldn't get back to shore. That same month in Iowa, a 31-year-old man died when he became tired and sank in a pond at a former quarry.

Experts say that outside of barriers, warning signs and public information efforts, there is little quarry owners can do to stop the trespassers.

"The biggest thing would be for parents to monitor the activities of their kids - when my son says he's going out exploring, what is he exploring and where is he doing it?" Boyer said.__