After fatalities, new signs along the Merrimack River caution swimmers

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned in the same spot on July Fourth. ALYSSA DANDREA / Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Rescue officials are working to better document the dangerous areas along the region’s waterways.

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty talks about how beautiful yet deceptive the Merrimack River is along Chapman and Pebble beaches. Two people drowned in the water off Pebble Beach on May 30, and one person nearly drowned on July 4 in the same spot. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Canterbury Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty walks along the shaded riverfront area at Chapman Beach that draws visitors on hot days. He warns that the river’s steep drop-off can be especially dangerous for those who don’t know how to swim. ALYSSA DANDREA / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/1/2020 11:20:49 PM

The dirt road leading to the Merrimack River cuts through a spacious field before narrowing along the tree line. The drive appears easy at first, but the wide road quickly shrinks to the width of a walking path with tree branches and shrubbery on either side.

Without a utility vehicle, the rocky and windy route through the woods to Pebble Beach in Canterbury is challenging to navigate, especially for anyone not familiar with the remote area off Intervale Road.

“You can see here where people probably got stuck,” Deputy Fire Chief Scott Doherty said Thursday morning as he stepped out of a four-seat UTV and eyed a steep hill of soft sand. “We’ll park here and walk the rest of the way in.”

At the base of the sandy hill, the tree line opens to a picturesque view of the Merrimack River.

“It’s an idyllic setting,” Doherty said at the riverfront. “If you didn’t know anything about the river and just came here to visit, you’d think it was the most beautiful body of water. But we know how deceptive its appearance is.”

In late May, a 27-year-old and a 21-year-old drowned in the water along Pebble Beach. Divers recovered the bodies of the two victims not far from the shore. The tragedy preceded a near-drowning on Fourth of July in the exact spot.

For first responders, the 911 calls from Pebble Beach were two too many during a summer that has seen more activity on the water than most after municipal pools in the Capital area did not open due to the COVID-19 outbreak. As the hot and humid weather continues into August, firefighters in Canterbury have teamed up with crews in Boscawen and Concord to try to educate residents and visitors about the Merrimack River’s dangerous drop-offs and strong current.

The town of Canterbury installed new signs in recent days at its Pebble, Chapman and Riverland beaches, as well as at a swimming spot off West Road, urging swimmers to “use extreme caution” when in the water. Each sign includes the name of the beach and its access point, as well as GPS coordinates, so that those in need of help can direct 911 dispatchers to their location as quickly as possible.

“We don’t want to be back here for another drowning. They’re especially difficult calls, like the most recent one that involved children,” Doherty said. “This is a concerted effort on the part of these communities to keep these tragedies from happening again.”

A report of children in distress in the Merrimack River reached Canterbury fire on the Fourth of July. Ultimately, three victims – a toddler, teenager and man – were rescued by members of a Tilton family who came upon the emergency while on a leisurely float down the river that afternoon.

Rescuers Traci and David Sullivan performed CPR on the man until first responders arrived at Pebble Beach. He was then transported by ambulance to Concord Hospital, where he was admitted in critical condition. The teenager was also evaluated, while the child did not require medical treatment.

New Hampshire Marine Patrol recently identified the man who nearly drowned as Prakash Dargee, 23, of Concord. Captain Tim Dunleavy said in an email to the Monitor on Thursday that Dargee was discharged from the hospital in mid-July and has since made a full recovery.

First responders said the heroic actions and quick thinking of the Sullivans and their friends prevented a third death this season. More than a dozen people were with Dargee that day, but firefighters said no one in his group knew how to swim. There was a significant language barrier that made communication between the group and first responders difficult.

“We believe they were all relatively new immigrants to our country,” Doherty said.

In an effort to educate both English and non-English speaking people, the new signs installed in Canterbury include an illustration of a person on the water’s edge and the dangerous drop-off they could experience just feet from the shore.

Officials in Boscawen and Concord have not installed similar signs yet, but say other related efforts are well underway.

Interim Concord Fire Chief Guy Newbury, formally chief in Canterbury, is spearheading a new mapping project that will help first responders locate those in distress on the river more quickly. By knowing the exact GPS coordinates of popular swimming and recreational spots in Boscawen, Canterbury and Concord, 911 dispatchers can more accurately use a caller’s cell phone location to find out where they are in relation to the river, and then relay those details to first responders, he said.

Firefighters have also increased training at the river to gain greater familiarity with popular access points, nearby landmarks and the inherent challenges of transporting both people and equipment to and from each location.

Boscawen Fire Chief Timothy Kenney, who has served for more than 30 years, said in an interview Wednesday that this summer has been one of the most active in recent memory.

“People don’t realize the power of the river,” Kenney said. “You can be just a couple feet from the shore and then all of the sudden feel a sudden drop-off, and those range from anywhere from 4 to 12 feet or more. At that point, it’s over your head, and you have to know how to swim.”

In prior years, drownings have occurred under the Route 4 bridge just over the Concord line in Boscawen, not far from the Hannah Duston Memorial. The recreational spot has been an active one this summer as hot and humid weather persists into August.

Firefighters from Concord and Boscawen assisted Canterbury at the two drowning-related calls to Pebble Beach in recent weeks. Kenney said Boscawen first responders’ most significant concern was access to the town’s boat launch off Depot Street, where on Fourth of July the road was packed with close to 100 cars. That morning, an ambulance had difficulty getting to a medical call on the water because the area was so crowded, he said.

The town has since installed new “no parking” signs and attempted to create more off-road parking on Depot Street so emergency vehicles have a clear path to the river.

Boscawen and Canterbury have volunteer fire departments, meaning a crew isn’t manning the station 24/7, and that affects response time. Doherty said that once firefighters arrive at the station it takes them roughly seven minutes to get to the access point for Pebble Beach off Interval Road, another two minutes to unload and five minutes to reach the beachfront, for a total of 14 minutes at minimum.

In both the double-drowning and near-drowning cases, the 911 callers didn’t know their location, which further delayed help. Firefighters hope the new signs that include beach names and GPS locations will prevent confusion in the future.

“We continue to see increased use of the river because pools haven’t opened during the pandemic,” Doherty said. “We felt we had to act quickly. This is about saving lives.”


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