By Angeljean Chiaramida
NEWBURYPORT — Coast Guard, state and local emergency officials congregated at Cashman Park yesterday afternoon, hoping against hope to find boater Richard Decker, believed to have fallen in the Merrimack River sometime Thursday night.
Authorities aren’t exactly sure what happened to Decker. They have been piecing together evidence.
According to Newburyport Police Marshall Thomas Howard, Newburyport police became aware of a potential problem around 9 p.m. Thursday night when they got a call about a lone dog tied to a pole at Cashman Park. Officers responded, Howard said, and searched for someone who might own the dog. Finding no one, they took the dog to the shelter.
The dog is a Siberian Husky named Toleman, and according to his friends, was the beloved companion of Decker, who has lately been living on an Endeavor 37-foot sailboat moored in the Merrimack, on the Salisbury side of the river off Cashman Park.
More clues emerged Friday morning, according to Newburyport Deputy Harbor Master Arthur Chaisson, when Coast Guardsmen on their usual patrol up the river came upon a swamped dingy tied to the Endeavor. Boarding the boat, they found a cell phone, but no one onboard. The Coast Guard then reached out to Newburyport authorities and began searching.
Howard said his department got the call at about 11:30 a.m. and had its dive team in the water searching for Decker by 12:30 p.m. With a line tied between the Coast Guard patrol boat and the Endeavor, and the help of the Newburyport Harbormaster’s patrol boat, three divers searched the river for hours. They included a member of the Merrimac Police Department’s dive team and Newburyport Sgt. Steve Chaisson and officer Richard Rocco, Howard said.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter that patrolled around the immediate area, as well as up the river as far as Merrimac and down to the ocean. Yesterday was a “flood tide,” a twice-yearly event in which abnormally high tides occur, sending a strong surge of water up the river.
Plum Island resident Charles Crowley had befriended Decker and was working with him to improve the equipment on his boat. According to Crowley, Decker was in his early 50s and a native of Germany who had been living in the United States for a while.
“Richard grew up on the Rhine River and worked on boats there,” Crowley said. “I don’t know exactly why he came to this country, but I think he was some sort of scientist.”
Crowley said Decker bought the Endeavor and had been working on it at a Haverhill marina, before putting it in the water about a month ago. At first he wanted to sail the boat to Hampton for the winter, then the plan changed to sailing down to Boston, Crowley said. That idea also changed because winter was coming and the boat didn’t have the necessary equipment needed to make the voyage to Boston, Crowley said.
At Cashman Park yesterday in hopes of somehow helping, Crowley said he got a call from Decker last night at 8:40 p.m. The call came in on Crowley’s cell phone, but he wasn’t aware of it until this morning.
“I feel terrible that I didn’t answer that call,” Crowley said. “I bet he might have been calling about his dog, Toleman.”
Ipswich resident Sally Thomson, another friend of Decker, was also at Cashman Park. She’d received a call from the Coast Guard because they found her phone number on Decker’s cell phone.
“He’s a sweet man,” Thomson said. “He lived with me for a year. He was living in his mobile home and he kept it at my place. When it got too cold for the mobile home, he came inside.”
Crowley and Thomson said Decker was very handy and while they knew him he worked odd jobs to support himself. He worked for people in the region, they said.
After selling the motor home and buying the sailboat, Decker lived on the boat, which was actually moored in at Crowley’s mooring on the Salisbury side of the Merrimack River. The two then worked to improve it together.
By 3 yesterday afternoon, Howard said the circumstances weren’t in Decker’s favor. The swamped dingy, the temperature of the water, the number of hours Decker had been missing and likely in the river, and the fact that the tide had turned and was heading back out to sea all led Howard to believe the situation would not turn out well.
“The reality is that this is a search and recovery mission,” Howard said.
With the Coast Guard helicopter hovering as it hunted the waters for any sign of Decker, and dark approaching, Howard said the dive team would soon have to stop their search. In addition, he said, since the boat was technically on Salisbury’s side of the river, the case would be turned over to that town and state officials.