Lake Keowee is one of the Upstate’s most prized summertime recreation spots. It’s also one of the deadliest.
At least 32 people have died on Lake Keowee within the past 25 years, according to data obtained from the Oconee County Coroner’s Office.
Out of those 32 fatalities, 17 were at Fall Creek Landing, a popular swimming and boating area that features a rock outcropping used for jumping in the lake.
Fall Creek Landing was the site where 21-year-old Vikash K. Patel drowned on the Fourth of July.
Patel, who could not swim, was wading across a shallow area to get to a rock formation when he waded into a deep part of the lake and could not stay afloat. His body was found in 19 feet of water.
“He would always put a smile on your face whenever you needed one,” said Sebastian Echeverry, one of Patel’s longtime friends. “He’s that guy that everyone loves and no one wishes anything bad upon him. I would tell the community to please be safe and to cherish every second you have because you never know what could happen.”
The rock he was wading to is a popular spot for jumping into the lake known as “jumping off rock” or simply “The Rock,” according to lake-goers.
People there that day described a large crowd of people jumping off the rock, swimming, boating and enjoying the summer day. The fun stopped when Patel went under and a dive team came to the site within minutes.
Taylor James, 24, of Pickens, came to the landing with her family to enjoy swimming on a recent Saturday while high temps were in the upper 80s.
Boats and jet skis moved in all directions. Some areas by the shore are littered with beer cans and glass bottles, showing where certain areas have seen more visitors in recent days.
From the shoreline, James pointed toward The Rock, a place she hasn’t revisited in about a decade, she said. At 15, she was preparing to go for her second jump into the water when the person before her died.
“When he hit, it killed him instantly. And I never jumped off again,” she said. “After seeing that, I decided I’m not jumping off any rocks anymore. I think people need to be more careful and pay attention. And if you have kids, watch them.”
Signs posted at Fall Creek Landing acknowledge the dangers there, stating that visitors are permitted to use the area for recreation “at your own risk.”
One sign features a life vest and reads, “Drownings have occurred in this area” and “If you can not swim do not get in.”
Wendy Runion, of Taylors, said her son frequents Lake Keowee’s “jump off rock,” which she said is a dangerous place, particularly for those drinking while swimming.
“I warn my son who’s 20 years old every time he’s going out there. ‘Please be careful. Please be careful.’ It is a dangerous spot,” Runion said. “I think they ought to shut it down because all these kids go out there and they’re drinking. We were grilling out on a boat dock on the 4th and I can’t tell you how many young men I’ve seen walk past me carrying cases of beer to the boats. I don’t think it should be allowed.”
The lake makes up more than a third, or 36 percent, of the 87 water-related deaths Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis had handled in his tenure as coroner.
Lake Keowee has had more water fatalities than any other body of water in Oconee County.
Lake Hartwell was next highest with 21 fatalities since 1993, followed by the Chattooga River with 13 and Lake Jocasee with nine, according to Oconee County data.
With the Fall Creek area in Salem accounting for more than half of Oconee County’s Lake Keowee deaths, authorities there reiterate the importance of water safety. The primary message is simple: wear a life vest, said Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis.
“My suggestion to general public is if your swimming capability is limited or non-existent, and you want to be around water, wear a flotation device,” Addis said.
The man-made lake built 50 years ago is owned by Duke Energy since the body of water serves the Oconee Nuclear Station. It’s grown into one of the most popular recreation attractions in the Upstate, offering waterfront properties, boating, tubing and dining options along the shore.
The utility company permits swimming on the lake along with the use of natural recreation areas like rock formations to jump into the lake. Swimming is only prohibited at boat ramp sites.
“Lake Keowee and jumping off rock are very popular this time of year. People can swim anywhere they want in these areas from dawn to dusk seven days a week,” said Heather Danenhower, a spokeswoman for Duke.
She said alcohol and drug use on the lake is not permitted.
“Lake Keowee is not staffed with life guards or others at the gate or boat ramps, and people swim and boat there at their own risk. However, we have multiple signs posted warning people of the risks,” Danenhower said. “The signs say drownings have occurred in this area and urge people who cannot swim not to get in the water and to always wear a life jacket.”
Swimming in a lake is very different from a pool, she said. Swimmers can’t always see the bottom, and water depths can vary significantly from two to three feet to well over a person’s head.
According to a 2015 injury report from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, there were 63 statewide drownings in 2014.
Drowning was the third leading cause of death for people ages 1 to 24 between 2009 and 2014. Drowning was the sixth leading cause of death overall between that time frame with 359 reported drownings.
About 10 people die every day from accidental drownings in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
South Carolina ranked 40th in the country for drownings between 2004 and 2014, according to DHEC’s report.
A breakdown of Lake Keowee data shows that Fall Creek has seen the most deaths since 1993 while others have been scattered across Oconee County’s side of the lake.
- Fall Creek, Salem: 17 deaths
- High Falls Park, Seneca: 2 deaths
- Newry Dam, Seneca: 1 death
- Keowee Bay, Salem: 1 death
- South Cove Park, Seneca: 1 death
- Off Hillandale Drive: 1 death
- Off Keowee School Road, Seneca: 1 death
- Off Harbor Oaks, Seneca: 1 death
- Off Beacon Ridge Circle, Salem: 1 death
- Marina Drive, Salem: 1 death
- Off Shore Drive, Seneca: 1 death
- Near Duke Energy, Seneca: 1 death
- Sailing Club Area, Seneca: 1 death
- Katelynn Drive, Seneca: 1 death
- Fall Creek Falls, Salem: 1 death
Patel’s death marked this year’s first water-related death in Oconee County. There were six last year, including three on Lake Keowee.
Part of the lake is also in Pickens County. Water-death data since 2011 shows that the Pickens County Coroner’s Office handled one Lake Keowee death. It happened in the Mile Creek area involving a 31-year-old man drowning while swimming.
Statistics about water-related deaths on the Pickens County side were not immediately available past 2011.
Pickens County also recorded one death in Lake Hartwell in 2011, a drowning in Lake Jocassee in 2013, a death in the Saluda River in 2013 and another Lake Hartwell death in 2014. Pickens County’s’ sixth water-related death since 2011 was in 2012 when a 36-year-old man died of suicide in a non-specified lake, according to statistics from Coroner Kandy Kelley.
Addis speculated that the higher death totals on Oconee’s side of Lake Keowee may be due to the popular recreation sites.
“Oconee County has two county parks on Lake Keowee and of course the popular Fall Creek Landing where ‘The Rock’ is located easily accessible off Highway 11 coming from Pickens, Greenville and Spartanburg counties,” Addis said.