A fishing trip turns tragic on the Merrimack River, leaving a family to mourn

  • Jake and Michelle Bronchuk talk about memories of their son Alec in their Merrimack home on Wednesday, July 3. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • A family friend made this heart-shaped memorial for Alec Bronchuk, which now sits on a mantle in the family’s Merrimack home.

  • Jake and Michelle Bronchuk talk about memories of their son Alec in their Merrimack home on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • LEFT: Michelle Bronchuk shows the tattoo she got in memory of her son Alec, a line from a song he wrote. It reads, “I see my hurt as my drive to exhibit my worth.”

  • ABOVE: Sean Donahue looks at the Celtic cross tattoo he got in honor of his brother Alec. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Alec Bronchuk (No. 34) was selected for the CHaD NH East-West High School All-Star Football Game in 2017. Bronchuk raised $1,380 for Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth and helped Team West capture a 25-14 win. (Photo courtesy of CHaD/NH Sports Photography) CHaD/NH Sports Photography—Courtesy

  • Alec Bronchuk (No. 34) was selected for the CHaD NH East-West High School All-Star Football Game in 2017. Bronchuk raised $1,380 for Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth and helped Team West capture a 25-14 win. CHaD/NH

  • Alec Bronchuk, 20, drowned in the Merrimack River in Concord while fishing in June. Courtesy—

Monitor staff
Published: 7/13/2019 9:00:55 PM

Scraping through the brush along the Merrimack River as cold raindrops poured overhead, Jake Bronchuk hoped each branch he pushed aside would be the one to reveal his son.

It was June 13, and Alec Bronchuk had been missing since early that morning in Concord. A day of fishing on the Merrimack River with his older brother, Sean Donahue, had taken a turn when their kayaks began to sink and both fell into the quick current of the river.

Sean managed to reach the river’s west bank and called for help, setting off a search for Alec that involved Fish and Game, State Police, Marine Patrol, and the Concord fire and police departments.

As these agencies deployed their resources and scoured the river and surrounding area for Alec, his parents kept looking. Jake and Michelle Bronchuk went up and down the river’s banks between the Sewalls Falls Bridge and the old dam, just short of a mile.

As the hours passed, hope for Alec’s rescue dwindled. About 300 yards downstream from where Sean last saw Alec, Jake found a white Nike sneaker floating near the bank. It was Alec’s shoe.

“I knew at that point he was gone,” Jake said, sitting in the living room of his Merrimack home with Michelle and Sean.

Jake began to pick up items he found along the bank – a deflated football, a golf ball, a small rock with a flower painted on it. He held onto these things, because it wasn’t until the following day that a Fish and Game diver would recover Alec’s body from the river. Until then, Jake and Michelle didn’t know if they’d see their 20-year-old son again.

“I thought for sure we were going to be burying a football, a rock and a golf ball instead of our son,” Jake said.

‘He loved nature’

Alec Bronchuk was always running out the door, to football practice or lacrosse, to play a round of golf or to go hunting or fishing.

He still found time to be home in Merrimack, playing NHL video games and recording music with his brothers or writing poetry in his room.

But he was most comfortable in the outdoors, a passion that his father, Jake, had passed on to Alec and his two brothers, Sean and Jesse.

Jake grew up on the South Shore in Weymouth, Mass., and Michelle is from South Boston. When he was in seventh grade, Jake joined his school’s Fish and Game Club and was drawn to his teacher’s stories of hunting trips in “the great North Woods.”

“I spent my youth sort of day-dreaming of that kind of a lifestyle,” Jake said.

In the early 2000s, Jake and Michelle moved with their boys to New Hampshire and settled in Merrimack.

“I started living the outdoorsman’s dream from Day 1 and got my fishing and hunting licenses, and my boys were my constant companions,” he said.

All the boys started hunting and fishing at a young age with their father. Jake remembers spending hours waterfowling with Alec, who eventually started going on his own trips with his brothers and friends as he got older.

And the boys’ skills in the woods and on the water began to surpass those of their father. Jake smiles and jokes that he was Elmer Fudd because “we never caught anything” when he took his sons.

“Usually the first thing Alec wanted to do when he got home was rub it in my face that he actually bagged something,” Jake said, laughing. “And then he’d chase his mother around the house with the carcass while she was screaming to get it out of the house.”

“It never got old,” Michelle said. “He loved nature.”

The accident

Alec had just finished his sophomore year at Plymouth State University, where he was majoring in criminal justice and playing football. He was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do. He was considering switching his major to psychology, maybe transferring to another school. He considered serving in the military and had been in touch with a recruiter.

Summer was getting underway, and Alec and Sean were spending almost every morning on the water.

“We were on the striper grind, so we’d go down to Newburyport and Hampton,” Sean said.

They learned from an article online that the section of the Merrimack River by the Sewalls Falls Bridge had some big Atlantic salmon. Alec, Sean and Jesse all went to fish the river in June. They had a good day, but came away with only bites.

Sean and Alec returned to the same spot around dawn the next day. They set off from the boat launch, their two kayaks connected so they wouldn’t drift apart. They didn’t bring life jackets with them.

They paddled to a couple of different spots around the launch area, getting bites here and there.

After a couple of hours, they tried moving again. Sean says he felt a rush of cold water on his back as they paddled backwards to unhinge their anchor. The kayak had submerged and water began rushing into the boat.

Moments later, Sean was in the river. He looked to his brother, and Alec was still in his kayak but it too had begun to take on water. When Alec fell in, he brought with him a backpack he had in the kayak.

They tried swimming to the shore, but it was exhausting to fight the current.

“Before we hit the rapids, we were just kind of talking to each other,” Sean said. “Once that happened … It went by so fast, but it felt so long. It was just immense power in that water.”

Fish and Game and Marine Patrol officers noted the river’s force during the search. Fish and Game couldn’t deploy its dive team until the following day, after the river was slowed down and the water level dropped. Authorities had been in contact with the state’s Dam Bureau to control the river’s flow and aid the search.

As Sean made it closer to the bank, he felt his feet touch the bottom. He tried to dig in for better traction, but when he did he was pulled under the surface.

“That was almost a huge mistake,” he said. “I hit a deep pool, and I thought that was it for me. But somehow I was able to come back up and surface.”

Just then, Sean, still moving with the current, slammed into a large rock and instinctively wrapped his arms around it. He stabilized himself on the rock and looked again for his brother.

“Alec was floating by and I was trying to tell him to do what I was doing,” Sean said. “I went to catch my breath and jump onshore. Once I got there, I was just calling for him from that spot and I wasn’t getting a response.”

Sean started walking – running – down the bank, looking for Alec. He said he couldn’t see straight and stumbled under the exhaustion of escaping the river. He finally dropped to the ground and began screaming for help.

A man walking his dog on the Sewalls Falls trail passed by when he saw Sean, who asked if he could use his phone to call 911.

At about 7 a.m. Thursday, Concord Fire responded to the call of a missing kayaker in the Merrimack River. About 32 hours later, a diver recovered Alec’s body in 9 feet of water. He was about 30 yards from the shore.

Bringing Alec home

It was about 2:30 p.m. on Friday, June 14, when Sgt. Geoffrey Pushee of Fish and Game walked over to Jake Bronchuk, who stood with a large group of family members at the search’s staging area in the parking lot near the Sewalls Falls Bridge.

Pushee told Jake that they recovered Alec’s body.

“I just broke down crying and gave him the biggest hug anybody could give someone because I don’t know what I would have done if we didn’t bring him home,” Jake said. “I knew he was gone in my heart before that point, but I don’t know how we could have moved forward without having that closure, without knowing that he was back with us. We’re eternally grateful for their efforts.”

Jake then approached members of the dive team, who were getting out of their gear and reloading their equipment into a large green trailer. He hugged each one of them.

“I didn’t have the words to thank them for their efforts up and down that river for two days,” he said.

He returned to his family, to be with Michelle and Sean and Jesse. Michelle had poured holy water into the river a couple of hours earlier and prayed for Alec to be brought home.

The next day, as the family began to try and process everything that had happened, Jesse showed his father an Instagram post a friend had made about Alec. By then, the news of his death was spreading throughout the Merrimack community and beyond.

Jesse showed his father the comments, where friends left an endless list of messages about Alec.

“That means the world to us as parents,” Jake said. “More than athletic or academic (accomplishments), to know he had that moral fabric and was thought of that way by his friends, it’s a tremendous thing.”

Alec was laid to rest in Merrimack. His funeral drew hundreds of his friends, teachers, coaches and others. They later gathered at the Bronchuk’s house, and several of Alec’s friends played kickball at the YMCA across the street.

“It was beautiful,” Michelle said. “It showed us the kind of kid he really was.”

“It was probably the worst day of my life but the best day of my life, if that’s even possible,” Jake said. “Just seeing the love and support and just feeling like Alec was there. This was his element.”

After the memorial cleared up, a girl picked up a wallet she found on the ground and brought it to Jake. He looked at the driver’s license inside and saw it belonged to a 17-year-old boy. He looked up the name, found a phone number, and the boy’s mother answered when he called.

It turned out the boy had not been there for the funeral. He had gone fishing at nearby Naticook Lake, and dropped his wallet as he was leaving the parking lot.

Jake and Michelle brought the boy’s wallet back to him and his mother. The boy immediately reminded Jake of his own son, and he slipped a prayer card from Alec’s funeral into the boy’s wallet. The card had the Prayer of St. Francis printed on the back.

“I just told him, ‘No matter what, make sure you’re always wearing a life preserver. Don’t do this to your mom,’ ” Jake said. “This kid loves fishing and he loves kayaking. He promised me he wouldn’t, and his mom hugged us all. We kind of left with a smile inside.”

Three days later, Jake emptied out the backpack that Alec had with him on the day of the accident. It, too, had been recovered from the river, but Jake was reluctant to open it immediately. When he finally did, he found Alec’s wallet.

Inside was a prayer card, the Prayer of St. Francis, tucked right into the same spot where Jake had put the card in the boy’s wallet. The card had somehow not been ruined despite having been submerged in water.

“I just thought, what an unbelievable sign,” Jake said. “This kid is telling us he’s here. He’s all around.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter

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