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December 8, 2012

Learning from loss: the Merrimack River tragedy 10 years later

10 years later, tragedy still a teaching tool for river's dangers

LAWRENCE — Lawrence Community Boating Program Executive Director Jed Koehler was recently standing before the Tower Hill Neighborhood Association, teaching about water safety and the dangers of the Merrimack River when a young man stood to speak.

”If someone had talked to me the way you’ve talked to these kids, my cousin and my friends would be here today,” he said.

Unbeknownst to Koehler, Jaycob Morales and his mother Ysabel (Morales) Ortiz were in the audience. On Dec. 14, 2002, Morales and six of his friends, ages 7 to 11, ventured out on to the ice on the Merrimack River. The ice gave way and into the frigid waters the seven boys fell.

The boys, all members of the Boys and Girls Club, formed a human chain to get out of the 35-degree water. Morales, Francis Spraus and Ivan Casado survived. William Rodriguez, Mackendy Constant, Victor Baez and Ivan’s brother Christopher Casado did not. The drownings of the four boys were the worst tragedy on the Merrimack since 1913, when 11 youths drowned in the collapse of a bathhouse.

”If anything came out of this tragedy, it’s the danger of the river. It’s not a safe place,” said Lawrence Police Chief John Romero.

In the last 10 years, the loss of the boys has given rise to a mission to prevent another tragedy from happening, with groups rallying around teaching water safety programs along with swimming lessons. Members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Lawrence set up emergency stations with ropes, floating devices and poles, on the Merrimack River, including where the boys drowned.

”We’re going to do this as a constant reminder about the importance of staying safe in the water,” Koehler said. “People in the Merrimack Valley should know that education is the key. What happened to those boys brought that to light.”

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