Concord woman who died swimming in Canterbury remembered as a “shining light”

  • The Pebble Beach area on the Merrimack River in Canterbury off of Exit 18 of I-93 on West Road near where the abandoned bridge that once connected to Boscawen. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Pebble Beach area on the Merrimack River in Canterbury off of exit 18 of I-93 on West Road near where the abandoned bridge that once connected to Boscawen. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Pamela Usanase —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 6/4/2020 3:37:16 PM

A Plymouth State University student and a culinary specialist in the New Hampshire Army National Guard was one of two people who drowned in the Merrimack River on Saturday.

Pamela Usanase, 21, of Concord was with friends that evening at Pebble Beach in Canterbury, and witnesses told first responders that she was the first one to enter the water. The second victim, a 27-year-old man who tried to rescue Usanase, also died Saturday but has not yet been publicly identified.

Their bodies were recovered by state divers early Sunday morning after search efforts failed the prior evening.

Fire officials told the Monitor the cold water temperature and the swimmers’ inexperience in the water also likely played a role. The incident remains under investigation by New Hampshire Marine Patrol.

Usanase is being remembered by family members and friends as a star student who proudly served her country.

Usanase was “a shining light” in her community, according to Rev. Kate Atkinson, the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord.

“Pamela was a proud New American and a dedicated member of our parish, Atkinson wrote in a tribute shared on social media. “With her sister Paulette, Pamela served as acolyte for a number of years, and she was always a cheerful presence in our worship services.”

Usanase was in her senior year majoring in allied health sciences at Plymouth State, where she had been named to the President’s List for academic excellence.

She was a 2017 graduate of Concord High School and excelled as a student and athlete, according to her obituary.

Since April 25, Usanase had been assigned by the National Guard to the New Hampshire Food Bank for COVID-19 relief operations. She was part of a team of 28 guardsmen who helped prepare more than 40,000 meals for families in need, according to her obituary.

Usanase was with three other people at Pebble Beach on Saturday, authorities said. One of them, who remained on the shore, called 911 for a water rescue at about 7:45 p.m.

Interim Canterbury Fire Chief Nicholas Baker said a Canterbury police officer was the first on scene and rescued a man who was having difficulty staying afloat after going into the water to try to help the two drowning victims. The male swimmer was transported by Tilton-Northfield Fire and EMS to the hospital for further evaluation, while the officer was evaluated by medical personnel on scene.

“The 21-year-old female entered the water first. It is unknown if she knew how to swim or how well but she became distressed,” Baker said. “The male victim then went into the water to try to rescue her, but he went into distress, as well. Then, the next male went into the water in an attempt to rescue them both and that’s when the officer showed up.”

Canterbury fire responded to the scene with crews from Boscawen and Concord, which assisted with boats to help carry out the search. New Hampshire Fish and Game and Marine Patrol also responded to the scene.

“A boat was launched on the Boscawen side of the river and they worked the site well into dark,” said Interim Fire Chief Guy Newbery, who retired as fire chief in Canterbury in December. “We were there for roughly two and a half hours on site. The victims weren’t found until the next morning but were very close to where we were searching.”

Baker said the water temperature was below 60 degrees, but there were no strong currents on Saturday night.

“Water temperature can quickly affect body temperature and cause it to drop without you even knowing,” Baker said, noting that it’s likely the swimmers’ muscles cramped up.

As the investigation into the incident remains ongoing, a local family is preparing to lay their loved one to rest. Usanase’s sister, Paulette Niwewase, started a GoFundMe page to help the family with expenses.

“Pamela was the second child of five, my older sister, and my best friend,” Niwewase wrote. “Her passing was tragic and unexpected. She died fighting and a hero to many.”

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