How post-storm conditions complicated a toddler's rescue from the Schuylkill

The public dock on the Schuylkill River where a toddler fell into the water on Saturday.

Friday’s rain fell in near-record torrents, raising the level of the Schuylkill by nearly a foot. But Saturday dawned bright and clear. As typically happens on a summer weekend, families gravitated to the public dock south of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge to watch rowers in their long, slim boats slice through the water and to participate in a popular, introductory rowing clinic.

Among them was a 3-year-old boy who fell off the dock and is now fighting for his life in the intensive-care unit at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

What should have been a straightforward rescue was complicated by treacherous, post-storm conditions that made it difficult to find the toddler in the fast-moving river. The boy was under water for more than 35 minutes before scuba divers from the Philadelphia Police Marine Unit were able to pull him out, according to Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, a department spokesman.

“I don’t remember anything like this ever happening before,” said Paul Horvat, the commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, which oversees Philadelphia’s iconic boathouses and has been trying to introduce a broader cross-section of the city to rowing. “It was just a horrible thing to have happened.”

The boy was brought to the river by his parents, who were attending an Introduction to Rowing clinic run by BLJ Community Rowing. The class was just getting underway on the narrow wooden dock when the toddler apparently slipped off the edge. His father immediately dove in to rescue him, and was joined by several other swimmers, according to Horvat, who was briefed on the accident.

Even when the toddler had been in the water for just a few seconds, the rescuers were unable to see him in the murky water. Normally, the area next to the dock is clear enough to observe turtles crawling along the silty bottom. But Friday’s heavy rains had churned up the river, turning the placid Schuylkill a muddy brown, Horvat said.

As rainwater cascaded downriver from the upper Schuylkill, the current intensified around the dock, which is next to the St. Joseph’s University boathouse. Visibility was reduced to just one foot, Kinebrew wrote in an email. Nearly two inches of rain fell in less than a half-hour on Friday afternoon. Charts from the U.S. Geological Survey station on the Schuylkill also indicate the river was flowing at 6,000 cubic feet per second on Saturday —  roughly six times the normal rate, said Horvat. Experienced rowers, he noted, usually avoid the river when flows exceed 8,000 cubic feet per second.

A visitor walks on the public dock on the Schuylkill, where a toddler fell into the water on Saturday. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The police department’s Marine Unit, located about a hundred yards upstream from the public dock, was on the scene five minutes after receiving the emergency call, Kinebrew said. A second emergency team arrived about 10 minutes later. Members of the Fire Department’s Rescue 1 and Engine 45 also joined the effort.

Equipped with scuba gear, the Marine Unit was able to scour the cloudy river bottom. Kinebrew said the fast-moving current had carried the toddler nearly 20 feet from where he fell into the river, about 12 feet below the surface. After divers pulled him out of the water, he was taken to Children’s Hospital, where he remained in critical condition Sunday.

Because the Schuylkill is the centerpiece of Fairmount Park, “it is not unusual to have children down by the boathouses,” Horvat said. The river is essentially a wild space, with no protective barriers. A 15-year-old girl was pulled under on a May afternoon in 2010 after wading with friends under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge.

But, he added, “a 3-year-old boy is a 3-year-old boy, and maybe in hindsight, he shouldn’t have been down there.”

BLJ Community Rowing was founded by Brannon Johnson, a West Philadelphia High rowing star who won a full scholarship to the University of Texas. After returning to Philadelphia, she came up with the idea of a “boathouse without walls” and started offering clinics to make the sport more accessible.

Lauren Hitt, a Kenney administration spokeswoman, said children are not prohibited from the city dock, which is used as a boat launch. But, she added, “In light of this tragic incident, we will be swiftly evaluating how to keep children safer on these parks and rec facilities.”

Horvat said the Schuylkill Navy would be discussing the same issues. “If we could rewind it, we’d say, ‘Don’t take young kids on the dock.’ There is no rewind, though.”