Working to prevent other Potomac River tragedies

The swift-water rescue team of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service works to recover a body on the Potomac River on June 2.
The swift-water rescue team of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service works to recover a body on the Potomac River on June 2. (Capt. Jennifer Probst/montgomery County Fire And Rescue Service)
By Cody Calamaio
The Gazette
Thursday, June 17, 2010

After a tragic start to the summer on the Potomac River, officials are renewing efforts to warn people about the waterway's dangers, and enforce a zero-tolerance policy against entering the river without watercraft.

Crews from Montgomery and Fairfax counties' fire and rescue departments, the U.S. Park Police, the National Park Service and the D.C. police harbor patrol gathered June 3 to announce renewed efforts to prevent drownings in the Potomac. That was three days after a mother and daughter disappeared in the river near the Old Angler's Inn.

Medical authorities were working at press time to determine whether two bodies found in the river that week are those of Olga Arotinco Gaspar, 35, and her daughter, Emily Escalante Arotinco, 13, of Herndon.

Police gave out 35 citations June 5 and 6 to people illegally entering the Potomac River from parkland, said U.S. Park Police Sgt. David Schlosser.

Officers on foot, motorcycle and horseback are enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for anyone off the banks of the river, even those who are standing in ankle-deep water, Schlosser said.

"We're not doing this to ruin anybody's fun," he said. "We're doing this because we want to see these people over and over again."

People who are cited face a mandatory court appearance in front of a U.S. magistrate judge and are subject to fines and jail time, Schlosser said.

"Penalties aside, you stand a likely chance of dying," he said. "That water is unbelievably treacherous."

Officials hope to inform visitors of the dangers of the Potomac through online videos, social media and outreach on television, Montgomery County Fire Chief Richard R. Bowers Jr. said. Safety signs in English, Spanish and Vietnamese are posted on both sides of the river, each displaying the universal symbol for "no swimming."

"The calm surface is deceptive," Bowers said. "Under the water are currents deadlier than ocean riptides that can take you down in seconds."

Six people drowned last year in the 14-mile stretch of the Potomac between Great Falls and the Key Bridge. After five people drowned in the Potomac in 2003, county officials initiated a campaign to prevent river drownings, and none had occurred until last year.

"This is one of the most dangerous sections of white water in the eastern United States," Bowers said.

Rescuers retrieved a body from the Little Falls dam at 5:30 p.m. June 2, three hours after it was spotted by a U.S. Park Police helicopter, according to Montgomery fire and rescue officials. A second body was removed by swift-water rescue teams June 3, near Perry Island, about 1.5 miles south of the Old Angler's Inn. It was brought to shore about 11 a.m.

The 911 call about the missing women May 31, Memorial Day, was not in English, and there was some confusion at the scene when rescuers arrived 11 minutes later, Bowers said.

Gaspar and her daughter, Emily, are from Peru and speak Spanish, Bowers said.

They spent Memorial Day with family and friends hiking on the Virginia side of the river to a spot near Difficult Run Trail and the Madeira School in McLean, where they reportedly slipped and fell into the water.

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