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Unguarded waters prove deadly for 4 young people

Down a dirt path to an edge of Olympia Lakes, Daniel Braun waded Thursday with his dog, Roxy, into water that reached almost knee-high.

Down a dirt path to an edge of Olympia Lakes, Daniel Braun waded Thursday with his dog, Roxy, into water that reached almost knee-high.

"This is a hangout, kind of, especially in the summertime . . . when you don't feel like going to the beach," Braun, 23, said.

But the night before, the Burlington County lake where Braun happily splashed had taken the life of a 19-year-old man.

The victim was among four young people who drowned in recent days - three on Wednesday - in unguarded natural waters in the Philadelphia area.

The burst of tragedy prompted renewed warnings about the dangers of unwatched swimming holes - and confident rejoinders from youthful swimmers.

"In our region there are a lot of streams, a lot of river access and lakes, and it's more common for victims to drown in natural bodies of water," said Beverly Payton of Richboro, Bucks County, spokeswoman for the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.

"One of the saddest things - and this is most common to teenagers, unfortunately - is that they really don't respect the water," Payton said. "They really don't respect how dangerous it can be."

Of the four recent drowning victims, three were in their teens.

The fourth was 23-year-old Martin Walton of Kensington, who died Saturday while crossing Neshaminy Creek in Bucks County with four friends.

On Wednesday night, William Wilkinson, 17, a student at Abraham Lincoln High School, drowned in the Delaware River near Pennypack Park in Holmesburg. Police said he and a male cousin had jumped in to rescue an 18-year-old woman.

The woman and the cousin survived. Wilkinson's body was recovered Thursday afternoon.

Police in Willingboro have not released the identity of the 19-year-old who drowned Wednesday while swimming with friends in Olympia Lakes.

In Gloucester County, 16-year-old Akeem A. Cody drowned Wednesday night while swimming with friends near a railroad trestle in the Raccoon Creek in Swedesboro.

The teen's family had moved in August to a home near the creek. Cody, a sophomore at Kingsway Regional High School, was not a good swimmer, said his mother, Natasha Harris.

She said her son's friends had jumped off the bridge into the water and had coaxed him to follow.

"I always taught him to be a leader, not a follower," she said, describing Akeem as "a humble, loving kid" who aspired to be a pediatrician or forensic pathologist. "I don't know why he followed."

Yet the allure of cold water on a hot day remained on display Thursday at Olympia Lakes, where Braun, his girlfriend, his sister, and friends gathered with towels, a cooler, and a small football.

Since he was a teen, Braun said, he and friends have spent warm days dipping in the lake, swinging from a rope and a zip line attached to trees, and swimming to the islands in the water.

Braun and the others said they were not worried about safety and knew their limits. "You just have to trust your swimming abilities," he said.

"I know when I get tired and when to come back," said his sister, Shana Hammond.

Such statements, typical of younger swimmers, don't always hold true, Payton said.

"They misjudge their swimming ability," she said. "They don't understand how powerful currents and undertows can be."

Streams like the Neshaminy, where Walton perished, are off-limits for swimming, as are county and state parks in Bucks, said John Dougherty, the county's emergency services director. But they are often remote and difficult for police to monitor.

"Any stream or waterway where you don't have lifeguards, I would consider that hazardous," Dougherty said. "The Neshaminy Creek, especially with the rain we've had, is flowing fast."

Swimmers like Walton, he said, underestimate the strength of that current.

"While it may look enticing, it's very, very dangerous," Dougherty said. "There's also rocks and logs and other debris [that] can be disastrous."

The Raccoon Creek, where Akeem Cody drowned, is also swift and debris-laden, said Woolwich Township Police Chief Russell Marino.

At 6 p.m., Wednesday, Marino said, an officer had shooed a group of about 30 youths from the creek because of the strong currents.

At 9:15 p.m. came a 911 call. Cody had vanished under the murky waters.

Two friends had tried to save him, Marino said. "They had hold of him for a little while."

Natasha Harris said she had tried hard to protect her son and keep him close, imposing a curfew of nightfall. Last week, she extended it to 9:30 p.m.

As that deadline neared Wednesday, Harris saw police speed past her new home. She and her husband drove to the home of a friend where her son had gone.

"Something in my heart said something is not right," she said.

At the friend's house, she asked where her son was.

"They just pointed" to the creek, she said, "and said they're looking for him."