NEWBURYPORT — An afternoon of winter adventure ended tragically for a 49-year-old Rhode Island man late yesterday when the engine on his powered paraglider ceased, sending his pleasure craft crashing into the waters just off Plum Island.
Despite an immediate 911-emergency call from a good Samaritan who was watching and a quick response from a 47-foot motor lifeboat from Coast Guard Station Merrimack River that pulled the victim from the chilling waters off Plum Island Point in about 20 minutes, the victim never regained consciousness, according to Coast Guard officials and police.
“Because of the fast work, they gave this man every chance to survive,” Brian Fleming, command duty officer for Coast Guard Sector Boston, said in an interview last night.
“He was in the water about 20 to 30 minutes from the time the engine quit till the time the Coast Guard took him out of the water and began administering CPR to him at about 5:25. We don’t know whether he was injured in the fall or whether it was from drowning or something else, like cold water shock “ Fleming said.
Cause of the man’s death remained under investigation, pending the results of an autopsy. Police did not release the name of the victim last night or his friends who had accompanied him. They were not local residents, according to police.
“I’m sure he was dressed well for air temp, but certainly wasn’t dressed for the water. When it comes to water, 38 degrees is cold,” Fleming said.
Tthe temperature of the water near the accident scene was 38 yesterday. The air temperature was 28 degrees, according to Coast Guard officials.
The man came to Plum Island with a group of others to spend the afternoon flying on both sides of the Merrimack River in pleasure craft known as powered paragliders or paramotors.
“It’s an over-sized sports parachute with a small engine strapped to one’s back,” Fleming said.
Witnesses said the man crashed into the Merrimack River about 50 yards from the shore of Plum Island Point, the northern tip of the island, where the river meets the ocean.
Two of the man’s friends attempted to go into the water to save him, but retreated because of the cold, according to Newburyport Police Lt. Richard Siemasko.
“They had to be treated for exposure at the scene and were released,” Siemasko said.
“The water is 35 degrees. You only have three or four minutes in cold water like that before you succumb. You have very little time when the water is cold like that. It was bitterly, bitterly cold,” he said.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Robert Worobey, who was part of the rescue crew that pulled the man from the water, said efforts were initially hampered by the parachute, which entangled the man in the water.
“We circled around to make sure we weren’t going to get stuck in the lines so we could safely rescue the person,” Worobey said.
“And we also had to free him from the engine he was strapped to. He had a complicated harness system on,” he said.
Worobey credited the Early Times, a local fishing boat, with helping to take away the parachute so it no longer was an obstacle.
“He was unconscious, face down in the water and foaming in the mouth when we got to him. He was floating on top of the water,” Worobey said.
The victim was wearing jeans and a cold weather windbreaker, not enough protection from the cold waters of the Merrimack River.