- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

For most of the recreational boaters, fishermen and hikers who flock to the cool waters and leafy banks of the Potomac every weekend, the river is a beautiful, relaxing escape.

But don’t let the water fool you, Matthew Springer, 28, warns.

“This isn’t Disneyland,” said the kayaking instructor from Bethesda. “That is the first thing I tell all my students when they come for lessons on this river. It may look very tranquil, but it’s big, it’s powerful and it’s deep.”

The Potomac, especially upstream from the District, with its rocky gorges and churning water, always has posed dangers for boaters, swimmers and hikers. Officials say at least one person falls in each week.

Twice in the past month, rescue crews have pulled large numbers of rowers out of the water after their boats were swamped: nine on Tuesday and 16 on April 26.

Not everyone who goes into the water, though, lives to tell the story: Montgomery County Fire and Rescue officials report that at least five bodies have been pulled from the river in the past year and a half.

“If you get caught in the undertow, the water actually pulls people down and prevents them from coming back up to the surface,” said Alan Etter, spokesman for D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services. “Getting caught in the undertow of this river could be deadly.”

The D.C. and Maryland response units work together along with rescue services from Virginia to try to ensure the safety of everyone who frequents the river.

“We have responded to 27 rescue calls along the river this year,” Mr. Etter said. “Of the 27 responses, we have rescued 41 people and recovered one body.”

Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service reports its swift-water-rescue crews have been busier than ever in the past few years.

The Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, which recovered the second drowning victim’s body this year, has been out on the Potomac for rescue purposes 26 times in 2004. Last year, fire and rescue personnel deployed special resources and rescue boats more than 30 times.

Fairfax County Fire and Rescue spokesman Dan Schmidt said ignoring storm warnings is the most common factor in most rescues.

“People are not taking the proper precautions of getting out of the water when storms are on the way, and this is a problem because they are really subjecting themselves to danger,” Mr. Schmidt said.

Another common problem, Mr. Schmidt said, is that people don’t know or — fail to heed — general boating regulations.

“People not yielding to right of ways, [not] wearing flotation devices and failing to follow speeding regulations have led to a lot of calls.”

Alcohol-related incidents are the third-leading cause of Potomac River rescue calls in the Fairfax County area, he said.

This year 16 persons rescued on the river by the District’s Fire and EMS team went to the hospital after being brought ashore. None suffered major injury, and most were treated for hypothermic conditions.

“There are a variety of ways people end up struggling for their lives after finding themselves into this river,” Mr. Etter said.

Spokesman Pete Piringer of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services echoed that warning.

“Some of the calls come from kayakers and boaters,” Mr. Piringer said. “However, people hiking or walking along the river are the most common calls we get.

“That’s what happened to the last two victims that lost their lives … in Great Falls Park,” Mr. Piringer said. “One man slipped on a rock near the shore and fell in the river. His friend jumped in to try and save him and, unfortunately, they both tragically lost their lives in the process.”

“We have at least one hiker a week fall into the river,” said Larry Simmons, 46, of Montgomery County’s River Rescue Unit. “That is why we stress that everyone bring a friend. What would happen if someone hit their head on one of these rocks out here and fell in the river?”

Water temperature is a major area of concern whenever people fall into the river. Cold water is considered anything lower than 70 degrees and, Mr. Piringer said, the temperature in the Potomac basically remains less than 70 degrees year round.

“A person’s muscles become very tense and tight when hypothermia occurs, making it tougher to use your arms and legs,” said Meredith Alexander, 28, head crew coach for Georgetown Day School in the District. “Last year, a boat took on so much water, we almost went down, and the thing that I thought was what would have happened to us if there wasn’t a rescue crew nearby.”

Depending on the temperature of the water, hypothermia can only take a few minutes to set in.

“Throw, row and go is what I tell everyone,” Mr. Etter said. “If you see someone that’s drowning, throw a floatation device to them. If you’re in a boat row to them. If not in a boat, go get someone.”

Fire and rescue crews stress that people planning on going out on or near the Potomac River should always bring a floatation device, a buddy and obey all the posted signs before venturing out near or on the river.

Taking a class in boating and river safety also is strongly suggested.

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