Tuesday, March 4, 2014

6/5/80 The Deadly Sandpits

(attempting to fill in the cut-off portion of the column, my apologies for mistakes)

Located in the South Belt area is lake know to many area youngsters as a recreational paradise. To other youngsters and their families, it is known as a death trap. 

Though most area residents may have heard of the lake, commonly referred to as the "sand pit" few realize the magnitude of this privately-owned lake which adjoins the Beverly Hill Park. 

Youngsters and adults like use the lake for swimming, fishing, drinking, scuba diving, and boating. 

But this past week the lake was the scene of a massive dragging operation for bodies, the first a young swimmer who reportedly went under at approximately 6:00 p.m. Wednesday. On Monday the body of Anthony Hein, 25, was recovered. Hein drowned on Saturday. 

Members of the Houston Police Underwater Recovery Team  who dragged the lake last week are familiar with the local swimming hole. 

The lake which reportedly reached depths of 100 to 110 feet has claimed an undetermined number of lives and has been the scene of personal injury to many others. An exact number of how many have drowned or been injured is unavailable.

"I've pulled at least four bodies out of this lake," said Ron Hickman, a member of the police search team. Hickman assisted in recovering Hein's body.

One of those bodies recovered was Denny Sousa, who in June on 1975,  a few day shy of his seventeenth birthday, dived into the water, broke his neck, and died. A year later, 18 year-old Chris Banhart also dived into the water and broke his neck. Today he lives his life as a quadriplegic. In addition to loss of use of his hands, he is paralyzed totally from the waist down. 

Neither boy was a newcomer to the sand pit. 

Denny dived from that same spot hundreds of times. It just happened a  bank collapsed, and the dirt filled in the space where he dove, "said his father ___ Sousa.

There the water had been neck-deep on Denny, it was knee high. 

"That's the dangerous part about the pit. It can change so quickly. Dirt, a hidden automobile, anything can be under the beautiful, blue water."

Sousa and his family live near the lake. "When we first moved here, I took my three boys to see the lake so they wouldn't be so fascinated by it. We walked around it. I showed them all the dangerous things about it, such as the banks which are caving in, the buried automobiles dumped there, the wire laying under the surface and many other things. I explained to them how dangerous it is. They didn't go here when they were younger. But then they were 14 or 15 and knew better than Daddy, they started swimming here.

The Sousa family has been strongly impacted by Denny's death and are concerned other families will have to experience the pain they have experienced until something is done to prevent such tragedy. 

...Even worse now with the public swimming pool (the Beverly Hills Pool)... Sometimes when the pool is closed, like the other weekend (the pool was closed due to an excess of chlorine in the water) kids who have been dropped off there by their parents will walk the short ways away and swim in the sand pit. 

"It's the 9, 10, and 11-year old I worry about. One of them is going to drown," Sousa said.

___ Banhart, Chris' mother, also has concern for safety of other swimmers who frequent the lake. "They thing because they are good swimmers, they can swim at the lake safely and that's not true. ...

Reached by the South Belt Leader last week, Gibson (the owner) said he did not know a search of the property was going on or that another person had reportedly drowned on his property. "Good Lord, have mercy, what can I do? I can't keep them out of it."

"I've put up signs, They tear them down. I even put up a billboard, but them threw it in the lake," said Gibson. "The city put up a chain fence between the park and the lake, but it was a waste of money."

Gibson has owned the property for over 20 years. He dug the property out to sell the sand. "There's still a lot of sand on the property, but the city made me close down my operation when they made me quit dumping water out of it."

The lake area has numerous springs which reportedly come out of the walls of the sand pit. 

I'll sell it (the lake) to anybody. I would like to develop the area with cluster housing or apartments, but the city won't give me any sewage."

Gibson owned a majority of the property which is now Beverly Hills Park. 

"The city took me to the court house steps to get that property," said Gibson.

"What am I going to do? I've tried to keep the kids out, but it's hopeless. The thing has run me nuts. I try to kick the kids out, and the younger ones come back, and the older ones try to fight me."

At presstime Monday, are youngsters were enjoying swimming and fishing in the lake while police still surveyed the area waiting for an unknown body to surface.

More bodies pulled from the sandpits later this summer: click here.

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