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N.H. students acknowledge danger of ‘polar plunge’; search for missing man put on hold

New Hampshire Fish and Game search for a missing person in the Smith River in Bristol, N.H., Tuesday, April 15, 2014. The crew is searching for a man who was seen jumping in the river Monday evening. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

New Hampshire Fish and Game search for a missing person in the Smith River in Bristol, N.H., Tuesday, April 15, 2014. The crew is searching for a man who was seen jumping in the river Monday evening. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

The search for Aaron Hoyt, a Northfield man who went missing after he apparently jumped into the Smith River in Bristol on Monday night, was put on hold yesterday after rising water levels created dangerous working conditions. Hoyt, 32, is presumed to have drowned.

“We’re not going to put anyone at risk until it gets a little safer,” said Lt. James Kneeland of the state Fish and Game Department, the organization coordinating the recovery effort in Bristol.

On Tuesday, boat and dive teams didn’t locate any clues, he said. Yesterday when water levels rose some 9 feet, the search was limited to an aerial survey by helicopter. The water is expected to rise an additional 14 feet today.

“We would hope the water recedes,” said Hoyt’s father, Mike Hoyt. “It is hard not having any closure.”

The search began after two witnesses said Hoyt jumped from a 12-foot ledge into the water below near Profile Falls in Bristol, according to Fish and Game. Hoyt was last seen with his head above water trying to get to shore.

There is no evidence indicating he jumped as part of a “polar plunge” dare, when young people challenge each other to plunge into frigid water and then post documentation on social media. But Hoyt was fully aware of the polar plunge trend, and his actions have some sort of relation, Kneeland said.

The fad’s rising popularity in the Concord area recently prompted school officials to alert parents of the potentially perilous activity. News of Hoyt’s presumed drowning had a varying affect on high school students in Bow and Concord who had participated in or heard about the polar plunge. Some students said it would act as a deterrent to those who haven’t yet participated in the trend. But many who had done the plunge themselves said it can be done safely.

“It’s a little scary,” Mike Manoogian said of Hoyt’s presumed death. A senior at Concord High School, he plunged into the Merrimack River more than two weeks ago after he was “called out” by two people. Accompanied by seven friends – one who filmed – Manoogian and three others ran in and out of the water at a boat launch off Exit 16 in Concord. As long as kids aren’t jumping off bridges or going into the deep, rough part of the river, he said he doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal.

One freshman at Bow High School said her mom filmed and supervised her plunge into Turkey Pond, because her mother didn’t want her to do it in a river with a current.

“People who first started doing it back when it was really cold, that could have been dangerous,” said Concord High senior Diego Hebra. It wasn’t, he said, when he jumped into the Merrimack a few weeks ago after being challenged by a friend. Both he and Manoogian said they wouldn’t do it again.

“The biggest thing for me when I was preparing to do it,” Manoogian said, “was to make sure there were people around . . . (it was) during the day and I knew it was an established and safe spot.”

The boat launch, where Manoogian plunged, is the most popular spot among students, he said. Others have also dipped into the Merrimack River from the Conservation Center beach area and at Sewalls Falls.

“You can’t do it safely,” said Chris Robbins, a sophomore at Bow High School who was one of the first from the school to take the plunge several weeks ago. After learning about Hoyt’s presumed drowning from his mom, Robbins said he would not do the polar plunge again. “It was kind of a game at first, and now that someone died, it changes your mind,” he said.

Other students agreed, and said that the news about Hoyt would act as a deterrent for those who hadn’t yet taken the plunge. “If they know people have been seriously hurt . . . then it will stop them,” said Olivia Painchaud, a freshman at Concord High who hasn’t done the plunge. “They know it’s dangerous. They are not thinking of the if factor.”

Under the rules of the plunge, students said, kids must submerge their entire head under the frigid water. Then, they can call out, or challenge, at least four other people to do it, Manoogian said. “It’s like a ripple effect.” In most cases students then post videos or pictures of the event on social media.

Early this month, school administrators around the Concord area began sending announcements to parents, alerting them to the fad.

The potential for danger is real, Bow fire Capt. Mitchell Harrington told the Monitor last week, because people’s bodies can seize up in cold water.

“It is just a dangerous practice,” said Bristol fire Chief Steve Yannuzzi, whose department is involved the recovery search. “These rivers are . . . unforgiving.”

Students have also begun to modify the traditional plunge, usually done in a body of water. Cheyenne Wilson, a sophomore at Concord High, said she saw a video of someone doing a polar plunge in a puddle. Others, she said, are doing it in bathtubs they fill with ice water. Some parody videos have popped up, too, of people plunging in showers or hot tubs.

Students at both Bow and Concord high schools said the trend began this year when older college kids called out a high schooler. Some 30 to 40 students, both boys and girls, have done it at Concord High, according to student estimates. At Bow, student estimates ranged from 25 percent to more than half of the 500-person student body.

But by now, several students said, the trend is largely fading. It was the big thing at Concord High one or two weeks ago, said junior Samantha Curran, who was called out but didn’t do the plunge. Since then, it has trickled off. At Bow, everybody who wanted to do it mostly already has, said a sophomore who asked not to be named. He did the plunge a few weeks ago in the Merrimack River.

But it may not be completely off the radar. Concord High junior Dillon McClellan said he was called out and probably will do it. “I don’t think it’s dangerous, but I see how it can be,” he said.

“A lot of people know how unsafe a lot of things they do are, they just do it,” said Collin Maclean, a Concord High junior from Deerfield who did the plunge off a boat launch in the town. “It kind of hurts because your muscles and stuff seize up,” he said. “It’s not fun, but it is at the same time.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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