Potomac River Tragedy Binds 2 Grieving Families

Christina Castro and Elijio Ramirez, parents of Jorge Castro, 11, who drowned while fishing with his father, embrace at the scene of the discovery.
Christina Castro and Elijio Ramirez, parents of Jorge Castro, 11, who drowned while fishing with his father, embrace at the scene of the discovery. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
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By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

As she had for each of the past eight days, Cristina Castro went to the banks of the Potomac River yesterday morning to look for her son. She crossed a footbridge over the C&O Canal, then saw the police cars parked at the water's edge and patrol boats circling. An officer intercepted her before she could reach the water.

He told her the news. She fell into her sister's arms, sobbing.

A police helicopter had spotted her son's body along the shoreline just after 9:30 a.m., about 200 yards south of Fletcher's Cove. It was the end of a heartbreaking nine-day search for 11-year-old Jorge Castro and Hau Nguyen, 37, who died after jumping in to try to rescue the boy. Nguyen was found Saturday.

The boy had slipped on rocks and fallen into the river while fishing with his father and brothers below Chain Bridge on April 26. Nguyen, who did not know the family, is thought to have gone in after the boy with another man and Jorge's father, Elijio Ramirez, 37, of Reston.

The incident has brought together two families -- one from Vietnam, one from Mexico. For much of last week, as police boats, helicopters and recovery dogs swept the river, groups of Hispanic construction workers, Vietnamese monks and the family and friends of both victims came to search the muddy banks and pray at the spot where the two had disappeared.

Nguyen, who worked as an auto mechanic at a Manassas area garage, is survived by his wife, Hong Thuthi Vo, and their son, Henry, who turns 2 on Father's Day. Daughter Susan is 9.

District police Lt. Paul Niepling said he will recommend that a public service medal be awarded to Nguyen's family.

The drownings happened on a Sunday. Ramirez had custody that weekend of his and Castro's sons -- Brian, 14, James, 13, and Jorge, 11 -- and brought them to the rocky shores of Potomac Gorge for a day of fishing.

Nguyen was there, too, enjoying a day off. "Whenever he had time, he wanted to go fishing," said Vo, who works in a nail salon.

The Potomac was high that day, churning at 25,000 cubic feet per second, twice its median flow. It was a volume of water that carried the equivalent of 1.5 million pounds of force -- 65 school buses -- every second. Jorge, who could not swim, lost his footing and was swept away in an instant.

His father dived in after him. Ramirez grabbed his son and pulled him close as the two bobbed along. A third man had also jumped in but was quickly pushed back to shore. Ramirez did not know that Nguyen had gone in as well.

The Potomac is 30 to 40 feet deep in parts of that area, and beneath the river's surface, boulders and steep channels form swirling eddies and powerful currents. Soon they were drawing Ramirez and his son downward.

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