In the Potomac’s grip: Why people drown at Great Falls
The river looked so calm when Mark Norman fell into it that he was more embarrassed than frightened. At first.
“I’m a pretty big guy. The water wasn’t moving very fast, so I could just stand up, right?” Norman recalled recently of the moment he found himself — a casual Saturday hiker who had slipped on a rock — unexpectedly in the shallows of the Potomac River. It was years ago, but he can still remember how chagrin turned to terror in some of the most treacherous waters on the East Coast.
“The pull was more powerful than I could have ever imagined,” said Norman, who was a band director at Towson State University at the time.
What followed was an encounter with the Potomac as horrifying as it is familiar in Washington: Another hiker, fisherman or boater was in the grip of a river that has claimed dozens of lives, including three since June. In the stretch of river between Great Falls and Chain Bridge, a rare combination of geology, hydrology and demography have combined to create a brutally effective drowning machine.
Norman’s near-death plunge and daring rescue were remarkable mostly because he lived to describe them. Many do not, and the grim cycle is well underway again this year: A recent high school graduate out for a hike with friends, a soldier goofing around with his buddies and an experienced kayaker preparing for a white-water race have all drowned since June. Harried rescuers have plucked dozens more from the same popular stretch, which is easily reachable from Great Falls Park on the Virginia side and the C&O Canal towpath in Maryland.
“Around here, we say we know it’s spring when we hear the sirens,” said Mark Regis, co-owner of the Old Angler’s Inn, a riverside fixture on MacArthur Boulevard in Potomac and the place where rescue boats frequently enter the water — and body bags come out. “The weather warms up, and boom, the drownings start. You never get used to it.”
The tragedies are all the more heartbreaking for typically having started as happy outings. Victims have gone in to aid their stick-chasing dogs, to free tangled fishing lines, to cool their feet in ankle-deep shallows.
Even hardened search-and-rescue veterans shake their heads over the mother who stepped into the shallows to retrieve a ball near Difficult Run on Memorial Day weekend in 2010 and the 13-year-old daughter who went in after her. They weren’t seen again until days later, when their bodies were recovered.
U.S. Park Police rangers, rescue workers and experienced paddlers have worked to deliver increasingly dire warnings to visitors to the rocky and popular part of the river known as Mather Gorge. Signs in English, Spanish and Vietnamese advise that the waters claim an average of seven lives a year.
“What’s unusual here is that we are very close to a huge and growing metropolitan area with a lot of diversity,” said Brent O’Neill, site manager at Great Falls Park. Many of the victims have been from the growing numbers of Latino and Vietnamese immigrants who flock to the river’s banks. “We have a lot of people coming with no experience with these kind of conditions.”
Some frequent river users say more could be done to spread the word. “There are signs, but they are sporadic,” said Wayne Cohen, a Washington lawyer who paddles the Potomac several times a month. “Most importantly, down at the swimming spots where people are actually going in the water, I don’t know of any signs.”
Ironically, it isn’t the ferocious white water that makes this part of the Potomac so deadly. Those dangers are as obvious as the roar that bombards anyone who gets close. Rather, it’s that the same violent currents continue to rage just below the surface, even in places where the river appears placid.
Beneath waters that may be calm enough to reflect the image of cliff walls and blue sky is a dark world of turbulence and chaos. The ancient river bottom in the gorge is a jumble of metamorphic boulders, crevices and trees. The river races over Great Falls, one of the steepest fall lines on the East Coast, plunging 76 feet in two-thirds of a mile, then speeding up when it enters the pinched walls of Mather Gorge.
“On the surface, the water may be moving at 10 knots, while five feet below it could be going 35 knots,” said Chief James Seavey of Montgomery County’s specially trained river rescue team. “If you pick your feet up, you might live. But by the time most people understand that, they’re gone.”
Heart of a daredevil
All his life, Vincent Crapps was an avid swimmer. And a fearless one.
“When he was 4 years old, he just jumped into the deep end when he didn’t even know how to swim,” remembered his mother, Barbara Crapps. “They had to pull him out.”
At 24, he was a buff, boyish soldier with hipster glasses and an Army buzz cut — an infantryman assigned to Fort Myer’s prestigious Old Guard, the unit that performs funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. He still had the heart of a daredevil.
“My son was always the first one on board for anything outrageous,” said his mother, who works at a church day care in Virginia Beach.
He would have had no fear, his parents said, of the deceptively flat water off Bear Island on the Virginia side of the river, where he and a group of fellow soldiers went hiking in June and where Crapps dived off the cliffs with no hesitation.
“It’s illegal to jump into that freaking river. There are signs that say, ‘No Swimming,’ period,” his father, Anthony Crapps, an electrician, said in a pained voice. “I did stupid things, too, when I was young. You just think you’re invincible.”
Crapps’s buddies saw their friend enter the water, but he didn’t come back up. His body was spotted downstream two days later.
“How do you stop them?” asked a frustrated Scott Goldstein, chief of special operations for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. “The only sure way would be a 10-foot chain-link fence so they could not walk off the C&O Canal. And that’s not happening.”
Instead, the patchwork of agencies that patrols this part of the river and its banks — two states, two counties, two national parks and at least three police departments — seeks ever more ways to get the word out. This year, the Park Service strung new banners at trail heads and parking lots that warn in three languages of dangers. A new volunteer foot patrol is working the Billy Goat Trail and other popular routes off the towpath.
And Great Falls Park has rounded up local kayakers for a 30-person Potomac Paddlers Volunteer Corps, a floating safety brigade that shouts advisories to visitors at some of the harder-to-reach spots in Mather Gorge.
“The paddlers are more eyes and ears on the river for us,” O’Neill said.
But even expert white-water jockeys operate on a thin margin of error. Shannon Christy, 23, an experienced kayaker accustomed to challenging Class V rapids, was running Great Falls in July in preparation for a race. She somehow ended up out of her boat above one of the most treacherous sections of the run, a thundering chute known as Subway, where her body was recovered a few hours later.
On a recent afternoon, two veteran paddlers launched on the Potomac just below the falls. Whit Overstreet, an advocate with the nonprofit Potomac Riverkeeper, and Nathan Nahikian, a white-water instructor, were out for an evening paddle. Almost immediately after running the first rapid, the outing became a safety patrol.
“That looks like a good idea, but it probably isn’t,” Nahikian yelled up to a shirtless young man on a cliff 30 feet above the river. The young man was within sight of the red spray-painted cross that marked the spot where Vincent Crapps was last seen alive.
“How deep is it here?” the young man called down.
“It might be 40 feet here and four feet where you land,” Nahikian answered. “I wouldn’t jump into any water where I couldn’t see the bottom.”
“And it is illegal, by the way,” added Overstreet.
The young man looked back uncertainly to where his friends were watching. Then he backed up, and they disappeared down the trail.
When the reckless do go into the water, it’s the RRATS who go after them, Montgomery County’s River Rescue and Tactical Services team members, the highly trained swift-water specialists based out of two fire stations in Cabin John.
The 100-member squad, made up of volunteers and career personnel, also responds to flash floods and hurricanes in the region (and even rescued trapped drivers when a massive water-main break turned Bethesda’s River Road into an actual river in 2008). But most of their calls are still on the Potomac, and it was to protect this particular stretch of river that the team was formed in 1957.
“If you lived along the river in Cabin John and Glen Echo in those days, you were known as a river rat,” said Lee Hunter, 61, president of the Cabin John Volunteer Fire Department whose father was a founding member of the rescue team. “We all knew the river inside and out, and we were told to stay out of it.”
Hunter joined the team in 1968 when it answered only a few calls a year on the lightly used river. As Washington boomed in the 1970s and ’80s, the river grew more popular. Paddlers, rock climbers and day hikers arrived by the score.
The RRATS got busier and more sophisticated. Now they, and a similar team in Fairfax County, deploy inflatable Zodiac-style boats, some with jet propulsion. Their rescue swimmers train regularly with rock climbers and work with Park Service helicopters.
After more than 40 years in the Potomac’s trickiest waters — and hoisting aboard more lifeless forms than he cares to recall — Hunter’s feelings about his boyhood river remain a mixture of love and fear.
To this day, he said, “you won’t catch me in it.”
Mark Norman had no desire to be in the Potomac, either, on the day he went hiking with friends. But they had seen some rock climbers and went down to the water’s edge to get a better look. He slipped. Almost instantly, he was pulled into the faster water in the middle of the river.
Norman was heavy, about 250 pounds, and not in great shape. He was a tuba player, and he had been on a couple of commercial rafting trips. Those factors probably combined to save his life.
“I can barely swim, but I float quite well,” Norman said. He decided not to fight the river but to ride it. Remembering his rafting guide’s instruction to “keep your feet pointed downstream” and relying on his musician’s breathing technique to keep calm, he let himself be carried away.
Inadvertently, Norman had put himself in just the posture rescue experts teach. The legs-up position kept his feet out of the rip currents and snags just below the surface. The relaxed floating preserved his energy for the rapids that would suck him under; the steady breathing kept him from panicking.
The first rapid pulled him under and spun him around. It took all he had to fight his way back to the surface. “It was like someone had tied boulders to my feet,” he said.
The second was worse. As he went down, a blackness started to envelop him. He was going below the reach of sunlight and consciousness. Finally, he fought his way up.
“I was under for more than a minute,” he said. “I thought I was dying. I didn’t think I could survive another one.”
But another one was coming. And so was something else: a lime-green blur approaching fast from upriver.
Peter Weina, an Army doctor, was just learning to kayak. It was his first time on the Potomac, and he was playing it safe near the shore. But when he caught a glimpse of a swimmer where a swimmer had no business being, he took off for the main channel.
“There was no thought process whatever,” recalled Weina, who is a tropical-disease researcher at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “It was probably really stupid.”
Weina said he dropped his paddle and reached out to grab Norman by the shirt. The boat flipped instantly. They were both in the water now, nearing the top of an ugly rapid known as Wet Bottom. Weina grabbed the upside-down hull with one arm and Norman with the other. They went over together.
“That was not the way I planned to run Wet Bottom for the first time,” Weina said. “But we made it.”
As the fury tailed off, they kicked furiously for the safety of an eddy and, eventually, the rescue boats that were on the way.
Norman, now a band director at the University of Michigan, thinks often of his close call on the Potomac. When he hears of another drowning, he thinks of the gathering darkness that he escaped but others didn’t.
“So many people have died in the same way,” Norman said. “It is such a beautiful place. It just doesn’t look that menacing.”