Tilton family recounts harrowing river rescue from Canterbury’s Pebble Beach on Fourth of July

  • Rescue crews from Concord launched a boat in the Merrimack River Saturday evening to assist with reports of children in distress in the water near Pebble Beach in Canterbury. Jay Health

  • Rescue crews from Concord launched a boat in the Merrimack River Saturday evening to assist with reports of children in distress in the water near Pebble Beach in Canterbury. Courtesy of Jay Health

  • Traci and David Sullivan (left) behind their Tilton home with family friends Kyle Hennessy and Teya Bradbury on July 7. The four were rafting down the Merrimack River when they came upon three people struggling in the water. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Traci and David Sullivan were rafting down the Merrimack River when they came upon three people in distress. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/7/2020 5:18:13 PM

For every 30 chest compressions David Sullivan performed on the man, his wife, Traci, gave two rescue breaths.

Those few minutes spent trying to revive a stranger on the shores of Pebble Beach in Canterbury felt like an eternity as they waited for first responders from area towns to arrive.

The man, who appeared in his 30s, was the third person pulled from the Merrimack River on the Fourth of July.

Days later, the man, who has not been publicly identified, remains hospitalized. First responders said the man was in critical condition Saturday night when they transported him by ambulance to Concord Hospital.

Two children also rescued are expected to be okay.  

The near-drowning this past weekend occurred just five weeks after two adults lost their lives in the exact spot along Pebble Beach. The region’s police officers and firefighters say they’re concerned that fewer recreational options and the closure of many municipal pools due to the new coronavirus have resulted in more people flocking to the Merrimack River, where undercurrents are often unpredictable and a challenge for even experienced swimmers.

Traci and David Sullivan, residents of Tilton, had planned to celebrate the Fourth of July with a leisurely float down the river, where family members and friends joined them. But their relaxing outing quickly took a turn that evening when they heard a woman scream from the shoreline.

“We had stopped at a rope swing and it was just past that that we heard a woman screaming, and I said to my husband, ‘something is wrong,’ ” Traci recalled by phone Monday afternoon.

By that time, their son, David Sullivan Jr., was already in the water with his girlfriend. The next thing Traci remembers hearing is her husband yell, “grab her!”

“We could see two children in the water, one of whom was an older girl, maybe about 15 years of age,” Traci said. “My son rescued her and brought her to shore. She was responsive.”

A toddler struggling to stay afloat was then scooped up by a friend of the Sullivan family, Mike Stone, and safely returned to the beach. In that area, more than a dozen people stood anxiously awaiting the outcome.

As her family members and friends rescued the first two victims, Traci said she made her way to the shore and, from there, attempted to talk to the group.

“There was a bit of a language barrier,” she said. “On my hands I kept asking, ‘how many more?’ because the woman who we first heard was still screaming and pointing.”

As the Sullivan’s daughter, Kaeley Currier, spoke with a 911 operator, friends swam back into the river to try to find the one person still believed to be in the water.

“With my husband and a couple of friends back out, one of the friends, Kyle Hennessy, just happened to see the lettering on the back of the adult victim’s shirt and pulled him up,” Traci said. “My husband was able to get to them and yelled to my son for help. The man was heavy from all the water.”

Traci and David Sullivan immediately started CPR on the adult victim from the beach. David performed chest compressions and Traci did the rescue breaths for several minutes until first responders started to arrive. Both are CPR certified.

“I think that if we were not at the right place at the right time, there would have been three drownings,” Traci said. “If we had arrived two minutes later or earlier to that spot, there would have been a very different outcome. It was apparent that no one on the shore at that time knew how to swim.”

This past Saturday wasn’t the first time the Sullivans jumped into action to save someone in distress in the water. Years ago, David rescued a girl from the Winnipesaukee River, located behind his Tilton home, after her canoe got stuck under a fallen tree and trapped her.

Interim Concord Fire Chief Guy Newbery said Monday that Traci and her family are the “true heroes” of this Fourth of July rescue story, and that their swift actions made the difference.

Rescue crews from the Concord area responded shortly after 6 p.m. to a report of children in distress in the river. First responders later learned that there were three victims in total: a toddler, a teenager and one man. In addition to the man, who suffered life-threatening injuries, the teenager was transported to the hospital for evaluation, said Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty.

“She was under the water for at least a couple of minutes and was having difficulty breathing,” Doherty said of the girl who is believed to be age 15.

The relationship between the two children and the adult was not immediately known. Doherty said there was a significant language barrier and no interpreter available to translate at that time.

The emergency call came on a hot holiday weekend that drew hundreds of people to the river, in part, because many municipal pools remain closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“The river appears to be a very placid but it’s not and there are actually quite powerful currents that run through there,” Doherty said specifically of the area around Pebble Beach. “It’s a great spot to go picnic and enjoy the view, but unless you are an experienced, strong swimmer you have no business swimming in that river.”

When the initial call indicated that children were in distress in the river, “that got everyone’s hearts pumping,” Doherty said of the first responders serving Canterbury’s volunteer department.

“It’s every first-responders’ greatest fear,” he continued.

Because Canterbury does not have its own rescue boat, both Concord and Boscawen fire departments responded to the scene to assist. Local authorities also called New Hampshire State Police’s Marine Patrol Unit as the agency investigates all boating accidents and drownings.

In light of the recent calls to Pebble Beach and an uptick in activity along the river, authorities are cautioning residents about the importance of life jackets and floatation devices. They’re also encouraging people to know their location so they can accurately relay it to 911 should an emergency arise.

Boscawen police said in a statement on the department’s Facebook page this week that the Merrimack River poses a significant danger.

“We do not recommend the river as a spot to swim, and the recent fatalities highlight its ability to claim lives in minutes,” police said. “If you do choose to swim in the river, please take every precaution you can, including wearing life jackets.”

Traci Sullivan said Monday that she and her family had never been to Pebble Beach and, in their rescue efforts Saturday, learned quickly how deceptive that area of the river can be to newcomers. She said the shoreline drops off quickly.

“As you step out, there is like an inch or two of water. Then, after you get in at about your waist, it just drops off over your head and you have to be able to swim,” she said.

Traci said she doesn’t know what happened Saturday night that caused the toddler, teenager and man to enter the water, but she is glad her family was there at the right time.

“There are still certain visions I cannot get out of my mind. I remember talking to the man when we were performing CPR and just asking him to stay with us,” she said. “We’re all hoping that he pulls through, and I think when you do something like this that you feel a sense of responsibility for the best possible outcome.”

The Sullivans didn’t return to the water that night to finish their float to Boscawen. Traci said she isn’t sure when they will feel comfortable reentering the Merrimack River.

“It was very traumatic not knowing if we had everyone and if there could be one more person in the water,” she said. “The people on the shore were terrified and, I’m sure, felt helpless. I think it’ll take us some time to get past all that. Those images aren’t something that leave you quickly.”

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