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Drowning and Rescue in New York

by Pat Arnow, Jul 14, 2006
 

Surrounded by waters with treacherous currents New York City offers up plenty of ways -- intentional and unintentional -- of getting in too deep. Yet, even with all the water surrounding the city, there are surprisingly few deaths each year.

The police department's Harbor Unit has 28 divers whose duties include rescuing people and recovering bodies from the 146 square miles of New York waters. They work from helicopters or boats, and must deal with low visibility in the sometimes murky water.

Drowning Accidents

Most at risk for unintentional drowning are teenage boys. "The most common drowning victims are males in their teen years through their mid-20s," reports New York Department of Health.

Their stories are poignant. An adventuresome 14-year-old boy, Joseph Johnson, exploring the Bronx River on a raft made of found objects along the shoreline, drowned when his raft sank in June 2005. Johnson, who had climbed through a hole in the fence along the river, couldn't swim.

That same month, a group of teenage boys got in trouble swimming too close to a rocky jetty in Long Beach. The waves battered them against the rocks, and one, Yuhang Gao, 15, of Flushing, Queens, drowned. It was the day before the beaches officially opened, so no lifeguards were patrolling.

Young men at risk are not just a New York phenomenon. Nationwide, 80 percent of all drowning victims are male, and drowning is the second-leading cause of death from injury for children from 1 to 14 years of age. African American children from age 5 to 19 drowned at 2.3 times the rate of white children. That is because African Americans are less likely to know how to swim, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But overall drownings are relatively uncommon in New York City. In fact, if you want to avoid accidental drowning, New York City is one of the best places to live – despite all the water. The rate of drownings here is less than a quarter of the national rate (1.14 per 100,000 people nationally, .28 for the city). Of the 1,078 accidental deaths in New York City in 2004 ( latest statistic available from the New York City Department of Health), there were 22 drownings. That includes deaths such as babies drowning in bathtubs as well as kids getting in trouble playing in rivers and beaches.

Accidents

Not just daredevil kids perish in the waters around New York. Aircraft, boats and construction projects can also cause danger in the water.

The year 2005 was a particularly rough one for aircraft over New York waterways. A small airplane crashed off of Coney Island last May and killed three tourists from West Virginia along with the pilot from Queens. Two helicopters crashed into the East River last June. One was loaded with sightseers and the other with executives from MBNA. All survived with the help of police divers and other rescuers.

In the city, lethal boating accidents are also rare. A powerboat ran into a rowing shell with four men at the oars in the Harlem River in October 2005. The men were out for their regular early-morning exercise. One, Jim Runsdorf, a real estate developer, 41, lost his life in the accident. Another rower was injured. The crash was judged an accident because of low visibility in the pre-dawn.

Ocean waters are particularly treacherous for boats. In June, postal worker Jeremiah Swinton died after the fishing boat he was in capsized off of Breezy Point.

Construction workers can also be the victims of accidents in the water. Last October, Kervin Collado, who was working on the Third Avenue Bridge, fell into the Harlem River. A Fire Department diver could not get to him before he died.

Suicide

The city offers tempting methods of self-destruction in the water. Despite that, of the 493 people claimed by suicide in 2004, only 15 died by drowning. The most notorious such suicide in recent years was that of storyteller Spalding Gray, who jumped off the Staten Island Ferry in January 2004. Causing additional distress to his family and fans, his body didn't surface for two months. It finally washed up near Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

In March, a 14-year-old boy, Sidney Hatchett, climbed over the railing along the promenade under the FDR Drive. His 6-year-old sister ran for help, but by the time rescuers arrived, the teenager had drowned. He was depressed over being bullied at school, his mother later said.

People wishing to end their lives may also seek out bridges although the bridges are designed to prevent falls and jumps. Guardrails and tall fences along bridge walkways deflect most potential suicides.

Some try and fail. Jumping off a bridge provides a more likely method of self-destruction, but it's not a sure means of demise. In May 2005, a 20-year-old woman survived the 135-foot fall from the Brooklyn Bridge. She was taken to the hospital where she was in critical condition. A 24-year-old Bronx man, Hector Amid, also survived his leap from the Brooklyn Bridge in March 2004.

Surviving such a leap is called "taking a Brodie." The phrase originated with a man named Brodie who survived after leaping from the bridge on a bet in 1886.

While the police maintain jurisdiction over most water rescues, the Fire Department sometimes comes to the rescue. A ladder company resounded to a 911 call when a suicidal man jumped off the Triborough Bridge in December 2005. Rescuers lowered their ladder from the bridge to rescue the man, who clung to a wall (evidently having changed his mind about wanting to die).

It's not always possible to determine how someone entered the water to commit suicide - or if their death was in fact a suicide. Mystery still surrounds the death of 34-year-old jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, whose body was pulled from the East River in Brooklyn in 1970 after missing for 20 days. The death was ruled accident or suicide, and talk swirled of a more nefarious end to the brilliant musician's career.

A police spokesperson says that the department does not track how many people attempt to jump off of New York City bridges-or how many succeed.

No Escape

Not everyone who gets pulled out of the waters wants to be rescued. In April, a car thief being pursued by police jumped out of his car and right into the East River at the Madison Avenue Bridge at 135th Street. Police helicopters and boats continued the chase. Even in the dark, they could see his shiny bald head, and though he continued to try to get away, police pulled the uninjured suspect from the water in less than 20 minutes.

After a man in his 30s who was holding a baby, jumped in the water off of Edgewater Street in Staten Island in March, a police officer in uniform jumped in and rescued the baby. Rescuers also grabbed the man.

Safety

Railings and police vigilance will only help some of those who get in deep waters. The Red Cross says the best method of surviving is learning to swim. Swimmers should never go in the water alone and should only swim where there are lifeguards. The New York Red Cross website lists swimming classes: http://www.nyredcross.org/takeaclass.php

While New York beaches do have lifeguards in the summertime, none of the city's rivers have beaches or lifeguards. So even in the dog days of summer, when a dip in the Hudson or East River is most tempting, it's not a good idea to dive in.

Boaters should wear life jackets and avoid alcohol. The NYPD Harbor Unit recommends a boating safety course (888-FOR-USPS).  

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