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Man feared drowned

May 01, 1998|By LISA GRAYBEAL

by Ric Dugan / staff photographer

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Rescuers had to give up the search at nightfall Thursday for a 20-year-old man feared drowned in the churning waters at the base of the Antietam Creek dam below Mount Aetna Road.

Rescuers had searched the creek for nearly three hours for the unidentified fisherman, who had gone into the water to save a dog. The animal also is missing.

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Four divers from the Maryland State Police Underwater Recovery Team plan to arrive at the scene at 8 a.m. this morning to search for the man, said Sgt. Rick Narron, a member of the team.

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"This water is not safe to go into alone," he said, scanning the rapids from the shore.

Officials had no hope that the man had survived.

"Anything after one hour is considered body recovery, not a rescue," said Capt. Chuck Singleton of Community Rescue Service.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Thursday, the unidentified man was apparently fishing with his 19-year-old friend near the base of the dam, when one of their three dogs fell into the creek, according to Vicki Keller, who lives in the first house above the creek.

When the 19-year-old saw that his friend was struggling in the cold rapids, he tried to go in after him, but had to swim back to shore when the current became too strong, Keller said.

He then ran through the woods up an incline to Keller's home to get help, she said.

"He came to the door and said his friend was in the creek. He said, 'He's dead, he's dead," Keller said.

Keller got the drenched and shivering 19-year-old into her house and called 911. She then wrapped a blanket around him, she said.

"He was in shock," she said.

He was taken to Washington County Hospital by ambulance to be treated for hypothermia, rescuers said. No information was available about his identity or condition.

Singleton, who was leading the rescue effort, said the 20-year-old apparently tried to reach for a life vest that had remained in the churning waters at the dam from Sunday's boating accident. But the force of the water pulled him under before he could get to it.

"The worst thing you can do is get into a churn," Singleton said.

Even rescuers didn't attempt to search the water without being secured by numerous ropes.

Hagerstown Fire Department Capts. Brian Pile and Jim Sprecher Jr. wore special harnesses attached to ropes held by rescuers from the shore. They also hung onto a main line that ran the width of the creek.

"I was trying to feel right at the base of where the dam comes down. I went the whole way across and I felt absolutely nothing. But that doesn't mean he's not in there," Pile said, wringing out his soaked shirt.

He said the water was cold but not as bad as he expected.

Meanwhile, a Maryland State Police helicopter from Montgomery County flew 65 miles to the scene to scan the creek with an infrared camera mounted on the front of the craft.

The heat-sensitive camera detected a hot spot next to a small island in the creek, said Trooper Donald Lehman, who was operating the camera from inside the helicopter. He directed firefighters by radio to the spot, which turned out to be an exposed rock that was still warm from the sun, he said.

The infrared camera did not detect any other hot spots in the creek, Lehman said.

Rescuers later shot another length of rope across the creek from a rope gun and secured an inflatable boat between the ropes. The boat was launched with two rescuers inside who were also hooked to ropes.

The two inside the boat used a grappling hook and long poles to drag the bottom of the creek the length of the dam but turned up nothing.

"The best that we know, there's someone in there," Singleton said, as rescuers began clearing the scene.

It's the second time in less than a week rescuers were called to the dam to pull people from the rapids.

On Sunday afternoon, four people, including a 7-year-old, were rescued and treated for hypothermia after the strong current pulled a boat back into the dam, capsizing it, and throwing its three occupants into the water. A fisherman who saw the accident and tried to rescue the boaters also was caught in the water.

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