Two men stood in the middle of the stream, water rushing into their knee-high boots. Suddenly the rope they held went taut as the hook on the end of it caught something on the bottom of the polluted creek. As the men and five children tugged, up from the greenish-brown murk came a rusted set of box springs covered with leaves, mud and unrecognizable junk.
Thus began the cleanup of Briars Ditch last Sunday, as a group of 38 volunteers, mostly children, tramped in mud, slipped down steep ravines, lifted heavy, twisted objects and got soaking wet.
The 40,000-foot stream, which runs between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Kenilworth Avenue in Hyattsville, is part of the Anacostia River basin. Sunday's cleanup took place in a section of debris-filled water behind the Parkview Garden Apartments on Riverdale Road.
The man who inspired these efforts is Dan Ignowski, a 29-year-old Prince George's County policeman who "adopted" Briars Ditch last November under a state environmental program because, he said, "it needed more help than any stream I had seen."
The Save Our Streams program, run by the Wildlife Administration of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, encourages volunteer work to rehabilitate streams.
Ignowski, who grew up in north College Park and now lives in the Parkview Garden Apartments, launched his efforts last November by cleaning up a different section of the creek. About 30 volunteers showed up to help, and after they had transformed that stretch of the stream, Ignowski treated them to hot dogs, chips and apple cider at his own expense.
He also threw a picnic for last Sunday's clean-up crew.
Ignowski's success with Briars Ditch has attracted attention of fellow environmentalists across the state and of Wildlife Administration officials.
"Dan is extremely enthusiatic and that's nice, because that stream (Briars Ditch) has a lot of potential," said Richard Kline, coordinator of the Save Our Streams program. "When it's brought back completely, it will be the first urban stream in Maryland brought back to life."
Klein stressed that urban streams, which can be put to the best use recreationally, are the most severely polluted and therefore the most difficult to rehabilitate.
This week, thanks to Ignowski's creative efforts, Briars Ditch will be stocked with trout. This latest stage in the long cleanup process has caught the fancy of many children at Parkview, just as Ignowski intended.
"I try to set a good example for them . . . even though they're not the ones who pollute the stream," Ignowski said of the children in the apartments, which are inhabited chiefly by low-and moderate-income families. "I figure if the stream could give the kids a break, they might give something back to the stream."
His philosophy proved sound as nearly 25 children, most from the apartments, showed up Sunday and enthusiastically pitched in to help drag debris from the water.
"I saw the announcement on a phone pole and it said there were going to be fish, so I came to help clean up," said Sang Kim, 11.
"Mostly all the fish in here are dead, but he's going to get trout in the stream," piped Rhonda Johnson, 10, another Parkview resident.
"I'm gonna come fish when the trout are put in the stream," said the youngest volunteer, Andre Gresham, 7.
"We caught a crayfish here before," he said, then turned to Keith Smith, 12, for confirmation of the memorable event: "Wasn't that a crayfish we caught?"
"Yea, but now there's just minnows," replied Smith, who said he also plans to catch some trout.
For Sunday's cleanup Ignowski solicited help from three Boy Scout troups, Parkdale Senior High, William Wirt Junior High, Riverdale Hills Elementary, the University of Maryland Botany Department and the Hyattsville Chapter of the Issac Walton League.
An even mix of black and white children, including teen-agers, gathered around Ignowski's police cruiser to help the jeans-clad policeman get baskets out of the back seat.
An added bonus, as far as Ignowski was concerned, was that the afternoon's effort may have helped change, if only slightly, their feelings about policemen.
"My attitude has changed just a little bit; he proved that all of them aren't bad," said Eddie Lee, 17.
"Just him and my uncle are good policemen," agreed Clifton Jones, 12.
"Policemen and streams are both important," said Rhonda Johnson.
And the few adults present Sunday, mostly friends of Ignowski, also praised his efforts.
"I first thought it was sort of useless because of the area," said Diane Carney, who lived in Parkview Apartments, "but I guess his incentive has sort of inspired all of us."
Sunday evening, after the six-hour cleanup, Ignowski had a few friends over to his apartment to help celebrate another event: He was promoted last week to private first class and transferred to patrol the Hyattsville area from Clinton, where he worked for five years.