Tragedy has struck the town too many times, as it did again on Tuesday when a 16-year-old boy drowned there.
“I knew when I heard the sirens that somebody was gone,” Dave McGrath, who lives next to Big River that leads to the swimming holes, said on Wednesday.
“When I hear the sirens I know where they are going. I hate it.”
The RNC confirmed late Tuesday that the boy had drowned at the popular swimming hole area. The incident occurred about 3:30 p.m. when the boy and his friends had gone for a swim to cool off on what was a muggy summer day.
The details of what happened to the boy have not been released, but it is known the river had been running higher and stronger after a recent heavy rainfall.
McGrath and his wife, town councillor Marion McGrath, have lived near the river for about 40 years. He said he’s aware of about six serious incidents at the swimming holes — including drownings and near-drownings — over the years.
“A lot of teenagers, and some older crowd, go there, and some come down in the night time to do a little partying,” McGrath said. “But it’s a spot where too many lives have been lost.”
What lures hundreds, if not thousands, of people each summer to the popular swimming holes carved into the rock by the river leading to the ocean is obvious.
The beautiful East Coast Trail with its summer smells of tree sap and shrubs crosses the river that has carved natural holes in the rock with cool, fresh water constantly stirred by waterfalls and whirl pools. Some people dive from the high rock walls into the deep areas of the pools, and for those who sit by and sunbathe, the beauty of the ocean and coastline are a stone’s throw away.
Flatrock Mayor Darrin Thorne said a grief counsellor was in the town Wednesday evening to speak with relatives and friends of the boy to help them understand and deal with what happened. He said firefighters and other first responders were also to meet with the counsellor, as it was a tragic scene for them, as well.
“It was a pretty tragic place to be (Tuesday). I can’t imagine what it’s like for the family and friends of this young man,” Thorne said. “This young man went down there with his buddies and they had to come back without him, so that’s tough for them to deal with. I worry about first responders, too. I know they have the training and stuff, but when something like that happens and with such a young life, it affects you.”
Members of the Torbay Volunteer Fire Department, and rescue crews from St. John’s Regional Fire Department, including its cold-water rescue team, responded Tuesday afternoon.
Telegram photographer Joe Gibbons described a “heart-wrenching,” emotional scene when he was there, as onlookers described to him how first responders were trying to resuscitate the boy when distraught family members arrived.
The boy was transported to the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, where he was later pronounced dead.
Thorne noted the last drowning in the swimming area occurred in 2002. He said people are saying now, as they said at that time, the town should seal off the area or fill it in. But it’s not that easy to do, as it’s a natural river area, he said, with the East Coast Trail passing through it and thousands of people frequenting the area each summer.
“We are so close to the city, a 10- to 15-minute drive, and any day when it’s over 20 C you can go down there and the church parking lot, the lookout parking lot and the sides of the roads are blocked,” Thorne said. “Thousands of people go through that area in the summertime and people go swimming, sunbathing and walking the East Coast Trail.
“It’s so tragic this happened again. When I drove home from work (Tuesday) I was sick to my stomach seeing the emergency vehicles there. Such a young man.
“The last time there was a drowning there was in 2002, a young 17-year-old. I don’t know the details of what happened in (Tuesday’s) tragedy, but these two incidents were days after a heavy rainfall and the river was raging and, if I had to guess, I would say that played a part in it.”
Thorne said the town is making an effort to raise awareness about the area. In addition to planned warning signs, he said, they are trying to get the message out that the pools can be very dangerous in the days after heavy rainfalls.
“We give our deepest condolences to the family and friends of this young man,” he said. “We only hope that other teenagers will learn from what happened here. Be aware what the river is like. If it is a raging river, don’t get in there. Don’t get in the river after a rainfall.”