In a five-day span last month, two people drowned in the Potomac River near Great Falls Park, only weeks after a public presentation by park and safety officials warning of the dangers of the river.
On June 24, 19-year-old Ngo Tekwe Forchick of Maryland was hanging out with friends at Purple Horse Beach at Great Falls when he fell into the water and drowned. His body was discovered two days later after an extensive search by fire and rescue officials. Five days later on June 29, Vincent Crapps, 21, of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment stationed at Fort Meyer was diving off on the Virginia side of the river near Mather Gorge when friends said he went under the water and never surfaced. His body was also discovered by fire and rescue officials.
Great Falls Park, an 800-acre park located along the Potomac River in Great Falls, is a well-visited natural landmark situated along the Potomac River, and one of the most scenic sites in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. But according to Brent O’Neill, the park’s site manager, the river demands respect and can be deadly if that respect is not properly tendered.
“The scenery and river environment is breathtaking and inspiring. But often, where there is rugged natural beauty, danger is present as well,” he said during the 2013 Potomac River Gorge Safety Press Conference on May 23. “The Potomac River is deep, fast moving, with jagged rocky bottoms, making powerful currents that even strong swimmers cannot swim against ... for all these reasons, swimming and wading are strictly prohibited.”
According to O’Neill, more than half of all river-related injuries in the 14-mile section of the Potomac River Gorge from above Great Falls to Washington, D.C., are fatal. In addition, he says, 72 percent of all river-related incidents in the gorge are shoreline based, as opposed to people who may be boating.
Oscar Wells is captain at Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department station 12 in Great Falls.
Because of its proximity to Great Falls Park, the station also houses swift-water rescue boats. Specially trained water-rescue personnel are always on hand in case of a water rescue in the river.
“We have three swift-water boats and at least four swift-water technicians always at the ready,” said Wells. “They have all received special training in the river. Our boat operators, [who require] even further training, are knowledgeable as to how to traverse the boats in the river’s strong currents, including going side to side.”
Wells said due to political boundaries, the river itself is considered to be Maryland and not Virginia, so many water rescues are performed by the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department, but said each department is able to perform independently depending on who gets the call. “We wind up working together a lot,” Wells said. “Sometimes we also get help from station 39 at North Point in Reston. They keep one boat there, and also have some trained personnel.”
Wells said that despite the natural beauty of the area, it is dangerous and many people learn about the dangers of the river the hard way.
“It looks cool and refreshing, but you have to remember that it is very dangerous,” he said. On July 10, Wells said his crew was called out to the gorge because a young man was cliff diving from the rocks, 50 feet above, into the water. “He broke his collarbone,” Wells said, “and he was lucky that was the extent of his injuries.”