For the second time in 10 months Alexandria's crew community has been struck by tragedy. Early last Friday morning, 20 year old John Steve Catilo, a rowing instructor for the Alexandria Crew Booster's summer program, fell from his motorized launch boat and disappeared into the murky waters of the Potomac River.
His body surfaced Sunday morning near Jones Point Park after being spotted by a fisherman. It was transported to Inova Alexandria Hospital for positive identification by the family and then transferred to the Fairfax County Office of the State Medical Examiner for Northern Virginia on Braddock Road where an autopsy was performed, according to Amy Bertsch, public information specialist, Alexandria Police Department.
According to Captain John Crawford, public information officer, Alexandria Police Department, in a release issued Monday afternoon, "The Virginia Medical Examiner determined the cause of death was accidental death by drowning." No other details were provided.
Catilo was not wearing a "personal flotation device" when he fell from his boat while supposedly trying to restart a stalled motor. The accident occurred while he was instructing a novice crew of young teenagers the art of crewing a nine person shell a short distance from the Alexandria Schools' boathouse, 1 Madison Street.
As one of six such novice crews operating from the Alexandria Boathouse Friday morning, Catilo's group immediately headed for shore to alert authorities, according to Barbara Gordon, public information, City of Alexandria. A multi-jurisdictional rescue mission was initiated under the aegis of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, Harbor Patrol, which, in conjunction with the U.S.Coast Guard, has primary jurisdiction on the river.
JOINING THEM in the search efforts were units of the Alexandria Fire and Police departments and the U.S. Park Police. Called off late Friday afternoon due to weather conditions, it resumed Saturday morning to no avail.
In addition to experienced rescue divers, fire and police officials called into use a computerized location system developed by the U.S. Coast Guard that plots a 50 meter-wide circumference based on an array of elements present at the time of such an incident. It factors in water depth, current speed, temperature, victim statistics, and other elements, according to police officials at the scene.
In his briefing that morning, just a short time into the day-long search and rescue operation, Lt. Alfred Durham, MPD, emphasized the need to wear flotation gear when boating and to have it available in any boat on the river.
"If he [Catilo] had been wearing an individual flotation device we wouldn't be here now," Durham stressed.
Durham pointed out that the accident occurred in the inner channel of the river closer to the Virginia shoreline. "They were not in the main shipping channel. He supposedly stood up in his boat to restart the outboard stalled engine and fell overboard," Durham explained during the press conference Friday morning at Daingerfield Island.
This was particularly poignant since Catilo was remembered as a good swimmer and experienced boater, having been a member of the T.C. Williams High School crew team prior to his graduation in 2001. Since then he had volunteered as a coach for the Booster program which introduces both teenagers and adults throughout Northern Virginia to rowing.
"This is an open program for interested people from not only Alexandria but also from Arlington and Fairfax County," said Debbie Wells, president, Alexandria Crew Boosters. "We have 130 kids and 54 adults registered in this program."
AT THE TIME of the accident, 66 "novice kids were on the water for their first class," Wells said. Of the total teenage enrollment, 49 are from Alexandria schools and the remainder are from other schools in Northern Virginia, according to Wells. The average age of a teenage novice enrollee is 13, she said, and they must have completed seventh grade.
Two of those who personally witnessed the tragedy were Rachel and Sarah Curzon, 14 and 13, respectively, from the Mount Vernon District of Fairfax County. For both it was their first time on the water in a rowing shell, according to their mother, LaDonna Curzon.
Sarah was in a boat being coached by Paolo Catilo, John Steve's brother, she noted. He took part in the search for his brother soon after the accident, according to Curzon.
"Rachel is sad and is coming to realize she actually saw him drown. She said, "I don't understand why this happened. It just doesn't make sense," Curzon said.
"But the Alexandria Crew Boosters have been very responsive to the Catilo family and the rowers who witnessed this tragic accident. I'm really impressed with their quick and professional response to this situation," said the mother of the young rowers.
Catilo, who would have been a senior this fall at the University of Virginia, was described by Wells as, "The kind of person that truly embodied the spirit of volunteerism. He was considering joining the Peace Corps after college before going on to medical school. I understand he also did some volunteer work in the Dominican Republic."
Peggy Murphy, former Volunteer Manager, Inova Alexandria Hospital agreed, saying, "John worked at the hospital for me for two summers in 2002 and 2003. He was very willing to help wherever we needed him, unlike many others who have their own agendas," she said.
"He was always cool, calm and collected. His second year he helped train other new student volunteers. He wanted to fill every piece of his day with meaningful activities. He was there, first and foremost to help the hospital. He would do anything, even the boring chores," Murphy said.
Last Saturday evening as darkness fell over the area and with the search suspended, the crew community gathered at the boathouse to hold another candlelight vigil. The last one was at Market Square, September 2003 for Schuyler Jones, 16, another T.C. William crew member who was killed in a confrontation with other area students.
Just over three months ago, the Schuyler Hamilton Jones, a new racing scull was christened at the boathouse.
The Crew Booster Club's program has been suspended until July 6, according to Wells.