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Potomac has unusually safe year

September 05, 2005|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

erinc@herald-mail.com

There has not been a reported drowning this year in the Potomac River. And while officials are grinning at the news, they also are shaking their heads.

"It's very unusual," said Lt. Paul Hanyok of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. "We don't really know why."

Hanyok points to a drop in boating activity, presumably due to increased gasoline prices. He also said a lack of rain has caused some areas of the river to be unusable.

"In certain areas, you can't even get your boat out," Hanyok said.

The lack of Potomac River emergencies also could be a result of state legislation passed in 2003 requiring those on the river to wear life jackets while on rafts or tubes, he said.

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"That has helped out a lot because a lot of our drownings in the past have been in those whitewater areas," Hanyok said.

Police have responded to boats stuck on rocks, capsized boats and other emergencies, but even those have decreased. Hanyok said police have not ticketed anyone in 2005 for driving a boat while intoxicated, typically a common offense.

Hanyok said Department of Natural Resources Police do not keep statistics on the number of drownings each year on the Potomac River. Other agencies, including the National Park Service, said they also do not keep those statistics.

Williamsport Volunteer Ambulance Service Deputy Chief Brian Lowman said the station typically responds to about 19 calls to the Potomac River each year. This year, they have been to five or six, he said.

Lowman said he remembers when the station responded to 10 drownings on the Potomac in 1989.

When asked why 2005 has seen a dip in Potomac River rescues, he said, "That's a good question. People are still out there doing dumb stuff, so I don't know why that is."

Over Labor Day weekend, Lowman said he expected increased activity on the river and an increased number of calls. As of Sunday afternoon, there had been no emergency calls to the Potomac River.

Williamsport Volunteer Fire Co. Chief William Ball said firefighters typically respond to about 10 incidents on the river each year, with the majority occurring during summer months. To date, they have responded to four or five, he said.

"A few calls have been mechanical problems with boats, but most have been false calls," Ball said.

People see what they think is a person in need of help, but it actually is an object floating in the water or another nonemergency, he said.

"They think it is someone who needs help," he said. "There's a boat floating down the river with no (direction), or someone thought they saw someone jump over a bridge, or thought they saw someone drive a car into the river, but it was debris from a storm."

Lowman said the foundation of the river often changes, making it hard for emergency personnel to know what to expect when responding to a call for help. After a period of heavy rain or floods, an opening in the river might have disappeared, or rocks, trees or part of a house could be in the way. He said it makes it difficult for emergency personnel, including the station's dive team, who respond to the Potomac River.

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