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N.H. officials alert public about swimming dangers

High water levels and scorching temperatures – along with swimmers unfamiliar with New Hampshire’s rivers and streams – have contributed to what officials called an “alarming” number of drownings so far this year.

Officials from multiple enforcement agencies held a press conference on a bank of the Merrimack River in Concord to alert swimmers about the “perfect storm” of hazardous conditions that exist due to heavy rainfall and people’s desire to escape the heat.

“Our waterways have a behavior of their own,” said New Hampshire State Police Capt. Mark Armaganian. “It’s one that’s unforgiving.”

New Hampshire officials said dangerous high waters and strong undercurrents are responsible in part for the high number of drownings so far this year.

Marine Patrol Capt. Tim Dunleavy said there have been 11 drownings this swimming season – nine of them in June and July alone – compared with a total of eight last year at this time.

Vermont also is seeing a spike in drownings in recent weeks, with two swimmers dying in swollen rivers and two in lakes and ponds. There also were at least four river rescues of swimmers in trouble.

Dr. Harry Chen, Vermont’s health commissioner, urged people to use common sense and caution.

“The saturated ground makes it easy after a rain for rivers to really rise quickly and become a wild, raging torrent. If it’s raging water, don’t go in it.”

Using the Merrimack River as an example, New Hampshire officials Thursday said the appearance of a lazy flow of the river masks stronger currents below.

Earlier this month, two men died in separate incidents in the Merrimack River.

Gary Lacroix, 59, of Concord, died July 5 when he attempted to retrieve an object floating in the water and was swept away by the current. Daron Graham of Penacook was swimming under the Route 4 bridge in Boscawen on July 6 when he went under. Other swimmers attempted to rescue him but were unable to reach him due to the fast-moving current.

Without explanation, Concord fire Capt. Dan Andrews asked everyone gathered at the press conference to be silent for about 20 seconds.

“That is the sound of a child drowning,” he said. He later added that often adults drown without making a sound as well. “We have to pay attention. We have to be on guard.”

That message was particularly poignant in the wake of a 3-year-old drowning in Sunapee’s Perkins Pond on Saturday.

Officials said Sidney Allen of Hubbardston, Mass., was playing near the shore when she went missing. She was found in water 10 to 15 feet from shore.

Most of the 11 drownings this year have been in lakes or rivers. The only death near the ocean involved a 59-year-old kayaker who drowned in the Squamscott River, which is a tributary of Great Bay.

Dunleavy said none of the state’s waterways so far has “No Swimming,” warnings, noting that conditions can change rapidly.

“With thunderstorms, a certain body of water can be fine at 1 p.m. and dangerous at 3:30,” he said.

Officials are warning people to exercise caution, keep a close eye on children and they advise weaker swimmers go to parks staffed by lifeguards.

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