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Sandy Island: A year after drownings, hopes for ferry dim

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Today marks the first anniversary of a boat accident that claimed the lives of three Sandy Island residents traveling home from the mainland.

The incident motivated state and local officials to renew efforts to make transportation between the island and Waccamaw Neck safer and easier, but residents are still waiting for those efforts to show results.

“We don’t have anything to show and I’m very disappointed,” said the Rev. George Weathers, Sandy Island’s unofficial mayor. “I thought we’d have been farther along by now.”

Weathers said it seems to him the county is “dragging its feet,” and he’s losing hope that change will ever occur.

After all, it’s not the first time efforts have been made to get better transportation for the island. It’s something officials have been looking at for more than 30 years.

“I really had my hopes built up this time,” Weathers said. “Because of the tragedy, I really thought this would be a speedy thing and something would have happened by now.”

Lou Ann Robinson, 47, Shaquatia Robinson, 19, and Rishard Pyatt, 18, drowned when their 14-foot fiberglass boat took on water and sank in the Waccamaw River. They were about 30 yards from shore.

The island is accessible only by boat and residents use small boats to travel to the mainland for work, shopping and medical care.

Shortly after the accident, the legislature passed a bill to would allow the state owned Sandy Island school boat to double as a passenger ferry. Georgetown County formed a task force to determine the best mode of public transportation to the island.

 Residents were also offered free swimming lessons and boat inspections.

Residents want a car ferry, so they can more easily transport large items, such as appliances and lumber, but the county is also considering a passenger ferry.

Coast Regional Transportation Authority, which is working with the county, obtained a $100,480 state grant in December to help create a ferry service to the island, but matching funds are needed before the process can move forward.

Meanwhile Sandy Island residents still have to use their own boats for everyday travel, and they say bad weather and larger boats that don’t slow down as they pass Sandy Island make the crossing dangerous.

Wilhelmena Pyatt said she considered cancelling a doctor’s appointment last week, because strong winds that day made her reluctant to cross the river.

“I started to call in, but I knew they would charge me if I cancelled, so I had to go,” she said. “It was really rough, but we have to do what we have to do.”

Although the task force last met two months ago and members, which include Weathers, haven’t received any information since then, County Administrator Sel Hemingway said work is still going on behind the scenes.

“The goal hasn’t changed,” Hemingway said. “The current effort is trying to find funding to match the grant, so we can at least be able to make a proposal and commit to a solution.”

So far, the grant is the only funding that has been secured for a ferry service. Federal stimulus money could be used to buy a ferry, but not operate it.

“That’s where the whole hang-up is,” Hemingway said. “Regardless of the nature of the service, the operational budget has not been identified.”

While Sandy Island residents continue to wait, they also continue to hope — that efforts pan out this time and that there won’t be another tragedy before they do.

“We’ll just have to be cautious,” Pyatt said.

The memory of last year’s accident provides incentive for that every time she climbs into a boat.

“That had an impact on all the residents here,” she said. “It’s been a year, but the wounds are still wide open. It still seems like it was yesterday.”

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