- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

NAUGATUCK, Conn. (AP) - While the sparkling waters of the Naugatuck River may look calm and inviting from the shores of Linden Park, wading in can be deadly.

In May 2015, the river claimed the life of Jada Ivory, a 12-year-old girl from Naugatuck. She was with friends unsupervised, slipped off the rocks, fell into the water and the strong current carried her away. Her body was found an hour and a half later, and she was pronounced dead at Waterbury Hospital.

Jada’s story is not unique. Every year, an average of 36 people drown in Connecticut, and 83 people are hospitalized as a result of near-drowning, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Many of these tragedies occur in natural bodies of waters such as rivers and lakes.

While every river is different, the hazards in each are similar. But the biggest problem is many who go into the water to have fun or cool off don’t know how to swim and don’t wear life jackets.

Cathie Mauritz, aquatics director of the Naugatuck YMCA, grew up around the beach, where everyone learns to swim almost as soon as they can walk. This is a stark contrast from places like Naugatuck or Waterbury, where swimming is not an everyday activity and many turn toward the river on a hot day.

“This isn’t an aquatic environment,” Mauritz said. “Here it seems to be more that if they can go from point A to point B, they consider that swimming. They think they know how to swim, but when they get to the river and they’re dealing with a strong current, their swimming skills are not strong enough and they don’t have the endurance to maintain it.”

After last year’s death, the Naugatuck YMCA partnered with the local recreation department to offer free swimming safety lessons for youths of all ages, and plan to repeat the program again this summer. One challenge, Mauritz said, is many of these children are afraid of the water, at least initially.

The Farmington River requires the same safety precautions, whether swimming, paddling or tubing.

Jeremy Harraden, manager of Satan’s Kingdom River Tubing in New Hartford, said many people are reckless around the river.

“First of all, if you can’t swim, you’ve got no business going in the river,” he said. “The river is not a man-made amusement park ride. It’s a real river with real hazards.”

The biggest hazards are the lack of life jackets and the use of alcohol, he said.

“Most people who go in the river on their own don’t have life jackets, but life jackets are a state mandate and for good reason. They keep you afloat and they work,” he said. “But alcohol leads to most of the problems. Alcohol and water don’t mix.”

Being intoxicated or even mildly buzzed on the river can have severe consequences, he said, because it can impair judgment in an environment where people need to be on alert.

NATURAL DANGERS also can put people at risk in area rivers.

“The number one problem is foot entrapments,” Harraden said. “The common thing when you fall in the water is to try to stand up. That’s the worst thing you can do. You can get your foot trapped between rocks and get stuck.

“Another problem is an eddy, or hydraulic,” he said.

Eddys are areas in which water flows around or over a rock, and then cycles back endlessly in a back current. They can be spotted near floating piles of debris around a rock, and the debris continually gets sucked back toward the rock.

While most eddys are small, some are big enough to trap a person. The Tariffville Gorge in Simsbury and the low head dam in Collinsville are two examples, he said.

If you get trapped in an eddy, Harraden said the most important thing is to “remain calm. Panic will kill you.”

He then said you have two choices.

“You can try to swim laterally out toward shore and continue to be sucked back in while you swim; or you can let the hydraulic bring you back into the waterfall, hold your breath, go under, ball up, and let the force of the water roll you like a bowling ball down the river,” Harraden said. “The water on the bottom is still flowing down river. When you’re far enough down from the backwater, you can surface and swim for shore. Hydraulics can be survived.”

He advises people to scout the river for these types of elements before they enter.

Dave Faber, a kayaking expert and owner of the Naugatuck Valley Outdoors Club, encourages people to check U.S. Geological Survey gauges that give information about the current water flow speed in cubic feet per second.

“It can be dangerous at certain levels. You’ve got to respect it,” Faber said of the Naugatuck River. “If you put another foot or two on this river, it becomes a whole different animal. The Naugatuck is unforgiving.”

He has seen this firsthand, having once found the body of a victim in the river.

Faber, who has kayaked on the river from Thomaston to Beacon Falls, advised avoiding a gorge with a large rock garden near Beacon Falls.

“These rocks are half the size of a car,” Faber said. “If you get a boat in front of a rock and can’t get it out, the water will just bend it in half.”

Faber also warned people to get out of their kayaks and canoes at Riverbend Park in Beacon Falls, otherwise they risk going over a natural dam in Seymour where the hydraulics can trap people.

Litter can also pose hazards. When Faber paddles his kayak on the river, he said he often finds trash. Though he and other groups regularly clean up the water, the trash creeps back and can be dangerous. Bigger items, such as shopping carts, can act as “strainers,” allowing water to pass through but trapping people, he said.

Faber said local teens have been throwing stolen Big Y supermarket shopping carts off an overpass foot bridge and into the Naugatuck River.

“These carts get caught up in the big rocks,” he said. “They are a safety hazard. A life jacket can get caught on one.”

Other unusual items found in the river include sofas, bicycles and syringes discarded by heroin users.

Despite its dangers, Faber encourages people to use the Naugatuck River for recreation as long as they are safe and responsible.

“It’s not a perfect river, but it’s really nice and we’ve got to use it right,” he said.


Information from: Republican-American, https://www.rep-am.com

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