Local loss brings need for lifeguard to Sandy Beach

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published May 23, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated May 22, 2013 at 10:13 a.m.
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Nick Hillemann

The lifeguard stand at Sandy Beach was recently dedicated in Robert Woods’ honor. Woods, who was a ninth-grader in the Heber Springs Panthers football program, drowned at the beach last year, and that event prompted area residents to achieve the goal of having a lifeguard on duty. Members of the Panthers are shown with the new lifeguard stand.

— It had been a hot day of football practice for Robert Woods, and the 13-year-old needed to cool off.

Like so many area kids during the summer of 2012, Robert headed straight for Sandy Beach. The popular stretch of sand and rock along a cove at Greers Ferry Lake has a roped-off area for swimming, with the water around 8 feet deep.

A few hours later, Heber Springs High School football coach Steve Janski got the phone call: Robert Woods had drowned.

“It was an awful feeling when I got that call from our sheriff to come down to the beach,” Janski said. “He was part of our junior high program. We’re a small town and a small school, and it gets even closer when you’re in that locker room.”

Word of the sudden loss spread quickly through the football team and the town. Students wanted to see something done, so they started a petition online, asking that a lifeguard be placed at the beach.

“When he passed away, it was so tough on the kids,” Barbara Owens said.

Owens’ son, Zach, was close to Robert. Zack asked his mom if there was anything more they could do.

“I said I’d make an appointment with the mayor to talk about the petition and see what we could do,” Owens said. “Mayor [Jackie] McPherson took it and ran with it.”

Placing a lifeguard at Sandy Beach was something city officials had been considering for several years. As more lake areas began to charge for access, Sandy remained one of the only spots in the area that was free. A few drownings in the past had sparked the idea, and when Owens approached McPherson after Robert Woods’ death, it was the right time to act.

“Everybody realized that you’re pretty much on your own when you’re on the lake, but anything we can do to help is a positive thing,” McPherson said. “I think we’ve had close to 60 drownings in the lake since its construction, and one is too many. If we can save one more life with this, it’s worth it.”

City Council members agreed to fund a new lifeguarding program for a year, including a new wooden lifeguard stand, equipment and trained lifeguards on duty each weekend. For summer 2013, lifeguards will be on hand from noon to 8:30 p.m. each Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as on holidays. McPherson said he hopes to have a lifeguard on duty starting Memorial Day weekend.

“Ultimately, we’d like to extend the beach area; then we’d need more lifeguards on duty, maybe on a [weeklong] basis,” McPherson said.

But for area parents, even the weekend lifeguards will make a difference.

“Sandy Beach is extremely popular,” Owens said. “It’s a centerpoint for the community in the summer. I will feel much more comfortable knowing there [will be] a lifeguard there.”

Janski said that football and other school coaches have been sure to emphasize to players the importance of resting after summer training before going swimming.

“It’s always been a concern of mine during the summer,” Janski said. “You can lock up and cramp up, and it’s a very dangerous situation. Now with the lifeguard, it gives everybody a little more comfort.”

At a City Council meeting May 16, Owens spoke on behalf of the football team, asking council members to consider dedicating the new lifeguard stand to the memory of Robert Woods. The council was receptive but decided the stand should be dedicated in the memory of all those who have drowned at Sandy Beach. The council is currently reaching out to the families of the drowning victims, and once a list is finalized, McPherson said, it will likely be engraved on a bronze plaque and placed on the stand.

“To be honest, I’ll probably cry the first time I see [the lifeguard stand and plaque],” Owens said. “It’s something we accomplished together as a community, and Robert’s life now has meant so much more, even though he’s passed away.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Associate Features Editor Emily Van Zandt can be reached at .