The rescuers that gathered in the rain on the bank of the Potomac May 24 could tell dozens of harrowing stories. They’d seen people clinging to rocks, pulled underwater with their kayaks, swept lifeless ashore.
National Park Police Captain Jeanne O’Toole told the simple story of a hat.
She had gone boating recently with friends near Reagan National Airport, a stretch of the river much calmer than the area near Great Falls.
“As we were going north on the Potomac, my friend’s Washington Nationals hat flew off. And that’s a coveted item these days, so we quickly stopped the boat and turned around and the baseball hat was gone,” O’Toole said. “And it just struck me — it’s that quick. That’s why we want to reinforce today to have respect for the river and the power of the river because it’s that quick that people are gone.”
Representatives of the National Park Service, National Park Police, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Service, Washington D.C. Police, Potomac Conservancy and other agencies were on hand to discuss the power of the Potomac River, which claimed five lives last year in the area between Key Bridge and just above Great Falls. That number is down from an average of eight to nine drownings a year a decade ago, but up from numbers between one and three in recent years.
Drownings occur along the Potomac throughout the Washington region. The Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department’s Swift Water Rescue Team, based in Potomac, responds to calls both within and to the north of the “Potomac Gorge” area between Great Falls and Georgetown.
Both the number of visitors to the C&O Canal National Historical Park and Great Falls National Park and the number of calls for service have increased steadily — and even given annual fluctuations, the proportional number of drownings has decreased.
Nearly every river drowning has been preventable, officials emphasized, and even one drowning is too many.
According to Jason Robertson of the American Whitewater Association, a non-profit paddling advocacy group, half of all drownings nationally are liked to improper life jacket use.
But while life jacket use is essential for boaters, the factors leading to drownings on the Potomac may be distinct from national trends.
“Most of the kayakers down here are very experienced,” said Pete Piringer, spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.
Increasingly, drowning victims are fisherman who slipped on rocks on the riverside. Many of those fisherman are not native speakers of English, said Joseph Lawler, National Capital Region Director for the National Park Service. So this month the Park Service will place 75 new river safety signs in strategic locations on the Maryland and Virginia shores of the Potomac — 25 in English, 25 in Spanish, and 25 in Vietnamese.
Still, the problem behind the a large number of drownings is not the unavailability of river safety information — it’s the decision to ignore warnings and wade or swim in water that appears calm.
“It’s a swift and dangerous body of water. Although the water may appear calm, the currents can be deceiving,” said Mike Love, risk reduction services division chief for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.
Potomac Conservancy President Matthew Logan called the Potomac “the wildest urban river in the world”.
“With that is not only this beautiful landscape,” he said, “but the wildness extends to the waters themselves. It’s a very, very dangerous place.”