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Girls Help Save Life

River hydrilla can prove deadly to swimmers.

<bt>Quick thinking and actions by the daughters of an off-duty Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department captain saved a neighbor from drowning in the Potomac River last Saturday. Another man did not survive.

At approximately 11:50 a.m. Heidi and Rachel Jenkins were playing in their yard on Southdown Road, in Mount Vernon District just off the George Washington Memorial Parkway, when they heard calls for help. That's when they noticed their neighbor, Henry Miller, in the water holding onto his aluminum rowboat some 60 yards off shore, where the water is approximately 10 to 12 feet deep.

"I was playing on the trampoline when I heard the cries for help and saw Mr. Miller holding onto his metal boat. I called for my dad and he hollered to Mr. Miller, "What's wrong?" 11-year-old Heidi said.

"Mr. Miller hollered back 'My friend is drowning,'" she said. Captain Larry Jenkins, a 31-year Fire Department veteran, immediately called 911, recorded at 11:53 a.m., and reported a person in trouble in the Potomac River.

Miller, a long-time resident of Southdown Road, lives two doors from Jenkins. He keeps a sailboat moored approximately 100 yards off shore from the rear yard of his home. Most properties on the east side of that road have river frontage.

AS DEPARTMENTAL PARAMEDICS were arriving within minutes, another neighbor, two lots on the other side of Miller, Jon Alderson, 15, lowered his 24-foot inboard motorboat into the water from its cradle. Picking up Jenkins and the other firefighters, they went out to save Miller and his friend Ronald M. Bolton, 72, who had recently moved in with Miller.

"We were able to get Miller and the other man on to the boat and back to shore very quickly," Jenkins said. But, it was two late for Bolton, who was pronounced dead at the scene and released to the medical examiner, according to Lieutenant Raul Castillo, Fire Department public information officer, also at the scene that day.

Miller, also in his 70s, was transported to Inova Mount Vernon Hospital where he was treated and released within a short period of time. However, he was not available for comment.

"I turned the boat so that the firefighters were able to pull the two men onto the back platform," said Alderson, a student at West Potomac High School.

According to Jenkins, Bolton had taken the aluminum rowboat out to the sailboat to bail out some water. Miller was sitting on the shoreline watching, according to Detective Robert J. Murphy, Fairfax County Police, Homicide Division, who investigated the incident.

Bolton decided to swim back rather than use the rowboat, according to Jenkins. "He tied the aluminum boat to himself and began to swim," he said. However, at that location in the river there is a large amount of hydrilla, a water plant that can entangle a swimmer, making it nearly impossible to stay afloat.

"That stuff is nasty," Jenkins said. "It will wrap around your legs when swimming, making it practically impossible to move them. It was brought in years ago to help clean the river, which it does. But, now it has just spread everywhere. It's normally in water not over 10 or 12 feet deep because it likes the sun."

"Only minutes had passed when I heard the paramedics coming," Jenkins said. "We all got aboard Jon's boat. When we got out to the two men I got Miller on board and then realized the other man had tied the boat to himself. I was able to cut the rope and we pulled him onto the back platform."

Jenkins was assisted by three other members of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.

"Miller saw his friend and then he didn't. That's when he called for help and went into the water to try and save him. He was hanging onto the rowboat when we got there saying his friend had drowned," Jenkins said.

BY THIS TIME Heidi, and her sister Rachel, 10, both students at Waynewood Elementary School, had gone back into their home.

"We were just sitting in the bedroom waiting," Heidi said. "We didn't particularly want to see a dead person. People should definitely not go into or on the water without a life jacket."

Their quick thinking and immediately alerting their father probably saved Miller's life, according to Castillo. "He could also have become entangled in the hydrilla," he said.

Bolton was a life-long resident of Northern Virginia who had recently moved in with Miller, according Murphy. He verified that Bolton's next of kin had been notified shortly after the incident.

"It was definitely an accidental drowning," Murphy said. "However, apparently Bolton had recently undergone a quadruple heart bypass and that could have contributed to his death. After becoming entangled in the hydrilla and trying to fight loose, he could have put extra strain on his heart,"

"Both men were longtime watermen and had extensive crewing experience," Murphy said. "I can't figure out why he would have chosen to swim at that spot rather than use the boat to come back in. It's a real shame."