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Second drowning victim found, identified as Penacook man

New Hampshire Fish and Game officers go out on a Marine Patrol boat to study the conditions of the Merrimack River and mark where a man was last seen on Saturday afternoon after jumping off a rope swing in Boscawen on July 6, 2013. By the end of the evening, officials called off the rescue operation, the third on the river in three days, and began handling it as a recovery. Divers will search the area on Sunday morning. 

(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

New Hampshire Fish and Game officers go out on a Marine Patrol boat to study the conditions of the Merrimack River and mark where a man was last seen on Saturday afternoon after jumping off a rope swing in Boscawen on July 6, 2013. By the end of the evening, officials called off the rescue operation, the third on the river in three days, and began handling it as a recovery. Divers will search the area on Sunday morning. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

The body of a young man who went missing Saturday afternoon in the Merrimack River was retrieved yesterday morning and identified as that of Daron Graham, 20, of Penacook.

Graham had been playing with friends on a rope swing under the Hannah Dustin Bridge in Boscawen when he dipped below the surface and never re-emerged.

The discovery was made a few hours after a team of divers from New Hampshire Fish and Game was dispatched to the area, a popular local swimming hole. Police and emergency officials had spent about three hours Saturday searching the shoreline and water from boats for any sign of Graham, but were forced at dusk to postpone the effort until yesterday morning.

A man at the scene during the search yesterday identified himself as family but declined to comment on the incident.

Graham’s death was the second drowning in the river in the past week and the third time in as many days that search crews responded to reports of a person being swept under by a strong current. On Friday, 59-year-old Gary LaCroix of Concord died just south of the Sewalls Falls Bridge. The day before, a 9-year-old girl and her father were rescued near the same location.

Boscawen police Chief Kevin Wyman estimated Saturday that the spot where Graham had gone missing was about 30 feet deep, an unusually high depth due to recent rainfall. By yesterday morning, the water level had dropped at least several inches, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut off some water flow from upstream dams to create safer search conditions.

The Penacook Rescue Squad, New Hampshire Marine Patrol and Boscawen Fire Department also assisted in the search yesterday.

Aaron Constant, who owns Quickwater Canoe and Kayak, which launches boats next to the bridge where Graham and his friends were swinging, said the rope swing was removed late yesterday afternoon. A group of boys had congregated across the river, he said, and had watched with “elation” as the rope was cut down.

Constant said the area under the bridge has a strong undercurrent and various rocks and other natural hazards, which become more dangerous after heavy rains. He said the high water level forced him to close until Friday, when it began to drop.

Boat launches and swimming destinations along the river remained open yesterday, though Fish and Game officials warned that boaters and swimmers should practice “extreme caution” when entering the water.

Few boaters were present early yesterday afternoon at the site – off Second Street in Concord – where LaCroix died Friday. A man who had been fishing with LaCroix and tried to save him was there, and he said he hadn’t seen anyone on the river throughout the morning.

“They’re pretty scared right now,” the man said, requesting that he be identified only by his first name, Bob.

Pat Malfait, who owns Contoocook River Canoe Company with his wife, Lisa, said they stopped running shuttles to the Merrimack River more than a week ago because of the swift water conditions. Lisa said a few people had called to see whether it was safe to go on the water but that the business was still operating trips down the Contoocook River, which feeds into the Merrimack and has fewer areas with white-water activity.

“It’s almost every river flows into the Merrimack, so there’s a lot of water pumping in,” Malfait said. “And the stretch that we run, I don’t think there are any houses or cottages, or very few, so when you have high water, there’s really no place to get out. So if you get into trouble, it can be pretty difficult.”

Malfait said the high water level is especially dangerous because it often results in moving debris.

“These areas where people use rope swings and jump off bridges, you know last week could have been fine,” he said. “But that high water picks things up, takes things down the river, lodges it a lot of times in different places. So now when people are jumping, I’m sure many of them don’t look down in the water to see whether there’s something down there and land on something, (resulting in a) broken bone, broken back, concussion.”

Malfait stressed the importance of having a life vest and planning ahead.

“Do your homework ahead of time,” he said. “Check the water before you just take off. It may mean looking at the stretch, maybe driving it first and checking one or two locations. One location could look fine but another area, it could be different. Where it bottlenecks is where you get that increased flow, and that’s where you can get in trouble.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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