EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

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

By Yadira Betances
ybetances@eagletribune.com

---- — 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.”

Markus Fischer, executive director at the Boys and Girls Club, agreed.

”It feels like if it was yesterday,” said Fischer. “We’re trying to bring something positive out of his horrible tragedy and we need to continue to make kids safe.”

Learning from loss

Club members from age 7 to teenagers enroll in an eight-week swimming program thanks to a grant from the Michael Phelps Foundation. The program offers the same techniques and principles used by the 18-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer. Named after the “Individual Medley,” Phelps’ signature event, the program goes by its abbreviation, “IM.” That also refers to the self-affirming “I am.”

The program consists of five focus areas: IM safe, water safety instruction; IM fun, recreational aquatic activities; IM fast, structured and organized swimming; IM healthy, health and wellness; and IM successful, goal-setting education.

”There is some anxiety from the parents about allowing kids to go into the pool,” said Markus Fischer, executive director at the Boys and Girls Club. “What it comes down to is breaking the cycle of fear.”

Karyn Hickey, aquatics director at the Boys and Girls Club, said those fears are eased after the parents watch their children at the lessons. In addition to the weekly 45-minute lessons, Hickey said members of the Lawrence Fire Department speak to the children twice a year. The first presentation is done before the river freezes and firefighters talk about ice safety and staying off the ice. The second is done before the summer when club members are reminded to never go into the ocean or in the pool alone.

”You not only need to know about being safe in the water, but what to do when you or someone else needs help. It’s a life-long skill whether you’re 7 or 70,” Hickey said.

On the other side of the river, the Greater Lawrence Community Boating Program has been teaming with Lawrence Public Schools and Lawrence Fire and Police departments about the importance of water safety.

”This is a life lesson for every child in Lawrence and anyone who lives by a river,” said boating program executive director, Jed Koehler.

A year after the drownings, Koehler became an aquatic instructor at the Boys and Girls Club, where he taught the Keeping Kids Safe program for five years as a direct result of the tragedy.

He joined the boating program two years ago. During the water safety shows, Koehler starts each presentation pumping up participants with chants such as “Be Cool, Follow the Rules;” “Reach Or Throw, Don’t Go;” and “Think Before You Sink.”

This is followed by having the youngsters raise their pinky fingers in the air and saying, “I promise to never walk on the ice.”

Members of the fire department then have a mock water rescue on the school’s stage. Firefighters show students the equipment used during water rescues: ropes with loops, hooks, hoses and a sled or floating device that can go across water, thin or hard ice. Student volunteers are suited up in the same waterproof-lined ice rescue suit with reflecting vests and pockets used by firefighters in a rescue.

”These are equipment we don’t want to use. The worst thing for us is to get a call about kids in the river,” Lawrence Fire Capt. James Loffredo said. At the presentation, he speaks frankly about the dangers of the river year-round and about the drownings.

”It’s hard, but you can’t sugar-coat it. We try to present the hard reality. If that’s what’s going to take to save a life, we’ll do it,” Loffredo said. “We tell them no matter what’s out in the water, whether it’s another kid or a dog, make a marker and go get professional.”

Loffredo said the shows are being presented to children who might not know about the drowning, but he is hopeful the message is still getting through to them.

”I think they are listening and hopefully it makes a impact right away. You never know the one we’ve saved because of our presentations,” he said.

In addition to the swimming lessons and water safety programs, the drownings prompted others to prevent the tragedy from happening again. A year after the drownings, then Andover High swim star Tracy O’Malley applied for a grant to revive the swim team at the Boys and Girls Club. It’s still thriving today.

The pain lingers

Ysabel (Morales) Ortiz says her son Jaycob does not like to speak about that day 10 years ago when he and his friends went out onto the ice.

”He’s still hurting,” Ortiz said. “It’s like the first day.”

Two years ago, Jaycob got a tattoo of a Rosary with the names of the victims. Jaycob also made a scrapbook of all the news stories on the tragedy and even wrote an essay about it for school. Before enrolling at Wheaton, Jaycob and his mother would go to the cemetery, where he would pray and cry.

She said Morales has been focusing on his studies and sports. He was an Eagle-Tribune All-Star in basketball and football at Central Catholic High School and is now averaging 9.5 points a game, second most on the team, for the Wheaton College basketball team.

While her son survived the tragedy a decade ago, Ortiz is now hurting over the sudden death of her older son, Eudy Villaman, 31 of Londonderry, N.H., who passed away Oct. 31, 2011.

”I felt horrible for the boys’ mothers before, but know I now how hard it was for them to have lost their children,” Ortiz said.

She said having Jaycob, 20, and Christopher, 23 a former football star at Central Catholic and the University of Delaware, around gives her the strength to go on. She has been without a job for three years and volunteers at Lazarus House Ministries.

”I laugh with people who I volunteer or work with and I feel more relaxed when I come home instead of staying in the house,” she said.

Chief Romero said the memories of Dec. 14, 2002 still remains fresh in the city.

”That was a terrible night for the city of Lawrence. It was so well publicized, a lot of people have learned from it. It was a horrible day and that’s something that you’ll never forget,” Romero said. “It was also one of the bravest acts I’ve seen from the responders.”

A Mass will be held in memory of the boys Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. at St. Mary Church, 300 Haverhill St., Lawrence.