KNOXVILLE (WATE) – A 25-year-old Atlanta man drowned Sunday in a McMinn County quarry.
This is the second drowning at this quarry over the past year. According to authorities, the location is unsafe and poorly operated.
McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy says that around 12:30 p.m., Sunday afternoon, James E. Semster jumped from a home-made wooden platform on a 30-foot bluff at the Blue Cove and appeared in distress when he was in the water. He said witnesses called 911 when Semster went under the water and didn’t resurface. His body was later recovered just after 4 p.m. by divers with the McMinn County Rescue Squad.
The Blue Cove is an abandoned rock quarry, formerly known as Proffit’s Quarry. It is owned by Charlie Womac of Riceville, who, according to Sheriff Guy, operates the location as a pay-to-enter “swimming hole” and camping location.
“It is a dangerous place,” says Sheriff Guy. “We’ve spoken with Mr Womac many times about the way he operates. It is filthy, and I see no regard for the safety of the people he allows to camp and swim here. This is the second death in a year, and I fear there will be more deaths, injuries, and other criminal activity.”
In June of 2015, McLean Daugherty of Niota died after jumping from one of the bluffs around the quarry.
“The entire place is trashy, nasty and just rigged together. Mr Womac has made his own floating “party boats” out of scrap lumber, water slides out of old pieces of tin, and jump-off points from scrap metal and wood. He charges a fee, but has no lifeguards, safety equipment, or water treatment system. Nor does he do anything to prevent alcohol or drugs from being brought on the site. We have caught underage drinkers here in the past, and from other information we’ve received Mr Womac continues to allow drinking and drug use in the campsites and out on the water. When our officers drive in, the people simply toss their contraband into the water,” added Sheriff Guy.
According to Sheriff Guy, Blue Cove operates without a business license because Mr Womac claims it is part of his farm. Sheriff Guy has also spoken with the Department of Health, but the location does not fall under public swimming and water quality standards because it is considered a “natural” swimming area.
“It is very frustrating,” the Sheriff says. “But we have already contacted the District Attorney’s office to see if any criminal charges apply in this case. It won’t bring back the loss of the two young men here but it might prevent it from happening again.”
Sheriff Guy offered one last bit of advice to the public: “Stay away from this place. It’s dirty and it’s unsafe, and we are going to set up our enforcement around it.”