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Antietam recovery operation unsuccessful

May 02, 1998


Staff Writer

For eight hours Friday, wetsuit-clad scuba divers and other rescue workers tried in vain to recover the body of a 23-year-old Frederick, Md., man believed to have drowned Thursday in the churning waters at the base of a dam on Antietam Creek.

Rescuers also searched the creek near the old Municipal Electric Light Plant for nearly three hours Thursday for Justin Michael Fortenberry, who had gone into the water to save a dog.

The man's fishing companion, Brent Daubenmire, 19, of Hagerstown, was back at the scene Friday, watching from the shore as divers searched the area under the dam below Mt. Aetna Road. Daubenmire had tried unsuccessfully to save his friend.


Four divers from the Maryland State Police Underwater Recovery Team arrived at the scene around 8 a.m. Friday to search for the man. They got into the water around 9 a.m. but packed up before 4 p.m.

Civil Defense Chief Robert Myerly said further recovery efforts would be limited. Myerly said the body might be caught under a section of chain link fence in the water. A crane might be brought in Saturday to attempt to remove the fence, but other efforts would end, he said. Workers tried unsuccessfully Friday to remove the fence with ropes and winches.

"We'll just have to wait. Sooner or later he'll surface. There's no sense in risking everybody's lives," Myerly said.

Myerly said the divers weren't able to go all along the dam under the water because the churning currents were slamming them against the dam wall.

The divers, anchored to a series of ropes, attempted to comb the waters with hooks while standing on top of the dam, but they were hampered by debris, including the fence under the water.

Daubenmire said he was fishing below the dam around 5 p.m. Thursday when he saw the dog go into the water. He said his friend, who was fishing above the dam, went in right after the dog.

"He jumped in and I was like 'Man!'" Daubenmire said.

"He was in there for a couple of minutes and he was already getting weak. At that point, I couldn't just stand there and look at him drown."

Daubenmire jumped off of the dam after him.

Daubenmire said he held Fortenberry up for five to 10 minutes before losing his strength. Daubenmire put a life jacket on Fortenberry that had apparently been left in the churning water after a water rescue at the same dam on Sunday, but the life jacket came off.

"He was starting to go unconscious," he said.

"I went under one time and I was getting weak," he said.

Daubenmire said he went under the water and took off his boots to make swimming easier.

He then was able to break free of the currents.

"I almost didn't make it," he said.

Daubenmire then ran through the woods up an incline to Vicki Keller's home to get help.

"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 man into her house and called 911. She then wrapped a blanket around him, she said.

"He was in shock," she said.

Daubenmire was taken to Washington County Hospital by ambulance to be treated for hypothermia. He was released a short time later.

Daubenmire said he used to jump off the dam all the time and swim as a kid, but not when the creek is as high as it is now.

"The water's cold and it takes the life out of you real quick."

Police had the area cordoned off, and shut down Mt. Aetna Road from about noon to 4 p.m. Friday.

Daubenmire said he had known Fortenberry, a carpenter, for two or three months. The two had considered going to Arkansas to start a chicken farm, he said.

Fortenberry came to the Frederick area from Arkansas about two or three years ago because his ex-wife was stationed at Fort Detrick and he wanted to be near his son, Daubenmire said.

Fortenberry was an excellent swimmer who had been a member of a swim team when he was in Arkansas, Daubenmire said.

It's the second time in less than a week that 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 that accident and tried to rescue the boaters also was caught in the water.

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