- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

Rescue crews are asking swimmers to heed warning signs along local rivers to stem a rash of drownings and near-drownings this summer.

“The [Potomac River] is very deceiving and has a very strong undercurrent,” said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. “It’s a mistake to swim.”

Three swimmers have drowned in Maryland and Virginia rivers in recent weeks, and at least 22 boaters, fishermen and other swimmers have been rescued.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death in the country, with 4,000 each year, according to the National Safety Council. Falls constitute the leading cause of accidental death.

Local officials said a contributing factor to drownings this year is that heavy rains have spawned treacherous, fast-moving rivers — compared to the calmer waters of the past three drought-plagued years.

But a key factor is capricious behavior by swimmers, boat-ers and fishermen who ignore posted signs, many of which display warnings in English and Spanish, as well as in international symbols, officials said.

For example, kayakers on Sunday rescued a man trying to swim with his dog across the rain-swollen Potomac River.

Mr. Piringer said the man was caught in a current in the Great Falls area and that the kayakers were assisted by rescue crews training nearby.

About one or two drownings now occur each summer on the Potomac, he said, noting that seven or eight would occur in previous summers.

Mr. Piringer attributes the decline to the success of Montgomery County’s Swift Water Rescue Team, more police patrols and more warning signs about swimming in the Potomac, which is illegal north of the District. He also said his department receives about 30 calls each summer for water-related incidents on the Potomac.

Last Saturday, the Metropolitan Police Harbor Patrol pulled a man from the water who had been fishing on rocks near Fletchers Boathouse. D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the man apparently slipped. Paramedics were able to revive him on the way to George Washington University Hospital.

Hospital officials would not provide information about the man yesterday.

“These areas can be very treacherous,” Mr. Etter said. “People like to walk on the rocks, then they slip and fall.”

He also urged boaters and others on the water to wear Coast Guard-approved life vests at all times. A 12-year-old girl who drowned in April after her canoe flipped on the Potomac was not wearing one, Mr. Etter noted.

Officials said alcohol use is always a concern, but noted that none of this year’s river accidents had been alcohol-related.

Rhonda Keith, an injury-prevention consultant with the Virginia Department of Health, said age brings different drowning risks.

Young children most often drown in pools, and teenagers in open bodies of water, while adults most often drown in bodies of water after alcohol use has impaired their judgment and abilities, she said.

Renee Stilwell, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, said parents must stress the dangers to their children. “Children have no conception of fear in the water and an over-exaggeration of what they can accomplish,” she said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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