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'When We Looked Back, John Steve Was Gone'

As the family of John Steve Catilo prepares for his funeral, the Alexandria rowing community continues to struggle with the tragedy.

Catilo, 20, drowned last Friday while coaching a group of novice rowers who were enrolled in the Alexandria Crew Booster Summer Rowing program.

“It was really our first day on the water,” said Sarah Kuckro, a rising ninth grader who was in the boat Catilo was coaching. “There were eight of us and the coxswain. We had spent the week learning how to position our bodies and working on the erg machines.

“John Steve had worked with us and so had his brother Paolo. They were always joking around with each other and with us. We all liked them both a lot,” she said.

Sarah’s boat was the first boat out on the river that day. “We were getting ready to turn around,” she said. “John Steve was trying to turn his boat and was hunched over where the motor was on the launch. Because he was turning the boat and trying to start the motor, I think he just pulled too hard on the starter and the boat tipped and he fell into the water.

“We saw him fall in and then saw him treading water but his launch was getting further and further away from him. None of the other boats were near us and we were pretty scared. We were screaming and trying to get someone’s attention. We finally saw a kayaker and he tried to help. He tried to get to the launch to get one of the floatation devices but couldn’t reach the launch. We saw John Steve in the water and then turned to look at the kayaker for just a minute or two. When we looked back, John Steve was gone. We never saw him go under,” she said.

WITH THE GUIDANCE of the coxswain, another rising ninth grader, the novices were able to get back to the dock. Three launches with coaches in them went immediately out onto the river to search for John Steve. Judy Noritake’s daughter, Alana, was in one of those boats. She works as an assistant coach in the summer program.

“John Steve coached Alana when she was a novice,” Noritake said. “She was really close to him and was looking forward to being a coach with him this summer. He was a wonderful coach.”

John Steve did not have a personal flotation device on when he fell into the river. “Really, none of the coaches wear them,” said Will Kuckro, who rowed at T. C. Williams High School and who is working as an assistant coach in the summer program. He was not on the Potomac on Friday.

“There are flotation devices in the launches but they aren’t usually worn. This was just a terrible accident where everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. I will wear a flotation device when I start working in the program next week,” Will said.

Will and Sarah’s father will allow both of his children to continue in the summer program. “When Will started rowing, our questions about safety were answered even before we could ask them,” Rod Kuckro said. “I think the Crew Boosters have done a good job in running the summer program. I do think that they should and will take a look at additional safety measures that can be taken.”

Noritake said that Alana has been involved in sports most of her life. “We have always made her wear helmets to ski and snow board and use the proper safety equipment for climbing. I never really worried about her rowing.

“This was a terrible tragedy and everyone is doing everything they can to support John Steve's family. The crew parents and kids are really like a family,” she said.

The Catilo family held a memorial on Wednesday, June 30, at Queen of the Apostles Catholic Church and a funeral mass on July 1.

Donations can be sent to the John Steve Catilo Memorial Fund, c/o Burke & Herbert Bank and Trust Company, 1705 Fern Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.