By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; B01
In an ominous opening to the Potomac River recreation season, rescuers suspended their search Tuesday for a 13-year-old girl and her 35-year-old mother who disappeared the day before under powerful currents northwest of the District.
The pair had not been found as of 7:20 p.m. Last year, six people drowned in a section of the river roughly bordered by Montgomery County on one side and Fairfax County on the other -- a toll that followed several years of no drownings in the area, officials said.
"This is the type of thing we worry about. This is the type of thing we all hate," Lt. Pat Mitchell said, steering a rescue boat near the shore where the two entered the water about 5 p.m. Monday during a gathering with about 30 friends and family members.
Rescue crews were expected to return to the river Wednesday, but they probably will be in a "recovery" mode, meaning they would be looking for bodies instead of living victims.
In the area where the two went under, the Potomac funnels into a narrow section and makes a sharp turn -- one of many such turns in an area that rescue workers called the Potomac River gorge. The turns create a series of strong currents. Under the surface, boulders create additional swirling currents.
The result: undertows that are stronger than many ocean beaches, Mitchell said. The boulders and rocks also can trap even experienced swimmers underwater.
While it is against the law to swim in the river, as pronounced by signs in the area, people get in trouble by wading into what seem to be calm waters to cool down, or by walking along the many rocky edges and falling in.
On Monday afternoon, four family members were standing on a muddy bank on the Virginia side. One of them waded out to retrieve a ball, said Capt. Oscar Garcia, a Montgomery rescue service spokesman.
At one point, the 35-year-old woman lost her balance, Garcia said. Her 13-year-old daughter tried to help her, but she got pulled in. The girl's father tried to save them both, but they were swept away by the current, Garcia said.
Rossi Ferrer, a niece of the mother, said she heard her call out for her daughter, telling her to "come back, come back."
"I can't. I can't," the girl said.
The current swept the girl toward the bank on the other side of a sharp turn. She disappeared under water before making it to the bank, family members said. Her mother disappeared about halfway between the two banks.
"The current took them both," said Giovanni Flores, another family member.
Family members said they didn't see the signs in the area, Ferrer and Garcia said.
Ferrer and other family members spent much of Tuesday morning staring out at the water, where less than 24 hours before they had been enjoying a Memorial Day gathering. A white votive candle burned at their feet.
The two victims had helped other Peruvians get settled in the area. "They've always looked out for us," Ferrer said.
Rescue workers were alerted to the emergency at 4:53 p.m. Monday. By 5:10, they had boats in the water, said Assistant Montgomery Fire Chief Scott Graham.
Authorities have not yet released the names of the missing girl and woman.
Monday's search team included workers from Fairfax County Fire and Rescue and the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, a U.S. Park Police helicopter and volunteer kayakers. Their search was suspended about 8 p.m. Monday.
The search started up again Tuesday morning, but was temporarily called off at noon, according to Graham, because of the difficulty caused by glare off the river.
If the crews go into recovery mode Wednesday, as expected, that would constitute a major scale back in the effort, said Graham: They will probably search for several hours but then shift to responding to tips and sightings. They will also track weather conditions such as warmer water that could cause a body to surface or current changes that could shift a body's position and make it visible.
On Tuesday morning, Graham was holding out the possibility of finding at least one victim alive.
They might be trapped against a rock or unconscious, he said; they might also have made their way home or to another place and are no longer in the water.