DURHAM — The drowning death of a Queens, New York, man is the latest in a string of fatal incidents at Millers Pond State Park.
On July 30, Ramiro Bonilla, 33, and family members were enjoying at day at the park. About 5:45 p.m. that evening, Bonilla drowned while swimming in the pond. Eight men have drowned while swimming in Millers Pond since 2000.
The pond is estimated to cover more than 30 acres and is 15 to 20 feet at its deepest point. While there are rock outcroppings and cliffs that swimmers often jump from, none of the drownings at Millers Pond have been connected with cliff-jumping or accidents on the rocks. Officials have never cited alcohol as a factor in the deaths.
Authorities say Millers Pond has an underwater current that swimmers might not be aware of. Another theory surrounding the drownings is that temperature changes from the cold water springs below the surface can lead to difficult swimming conditions and cramping.
The surrounding towns of Durham, Middletown and Haddam have no say in the management of the property, but emergency crews from those towns are the first to respond to incidents there.
“That’s why our fire department has a rescue boat and drills for these types of rescues,” Durham First Selectman Laura Francis said. “It’s tough for our responders. Those are not calls that they want to get. It’s not easy for them emotionally to recover a body.”
Millers Pond has signs forbidding jumping from the cliffs. Another sign declares: “This area is not designated for swimming.”
On the state park’s website, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection does not list swimming as an activity permitted there.
According to DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain, while not advisable, it is not illegal to swim at Millers Pond.
“That’s the flip side. It’s not a designated swim area but it’s not illegal,” he said.
DEEP has 23 parks with designated swim areas and a goal to have seven of those monitored with lifeguards.
According to Schain, for an area to be designated as a swim area it must be analyzed and surveyed by the agency to be free of hazards. Schain said in those areas, “there’s a formal swim area with ropes that’s been deemed free of hazards...basically determined to be a safe place to swim.”
When assessing designated swim areas, Schain said, DEEP looks for a waterfront with a beach, a gentle slope into and under the water, swimming areas no deeper than 5 feet, and a lack of obstructions or sudden drop offs.
At Millers Pond, Schain notes, there is no gentle slope, the bottom is rocky, and trees come right up near the water.
To create a beach would “drastically change the environment and cost a fortune,” he said.
As there is no recognized swimming and no beach at Millers Pond, it is not staffed with lifeguards or rescue equipment.
In the wake of Bonilla’s drowning, Francis Willett, director of Durham’s Department of Emergency Management, posted on Facebook about signs at the park in multiple languages stating no swimming allowed.
Still, Millers Pond draws a crowd, specifically for swimming.
Francis said the town occasionally has to enforce parking bans on Foot Hills Road, where cars have parked when the state park’s lot is full.