A family fishing trip to a Massachusetts river ended in tragedy Thursday with a mother dead and her 6-year-old son missing in the Merrimack River. Authorities continued to search for the boy by land, river and air Friday morning before the Coast Guard suspended the search at 5 p.m.
The family of six — a mother and father and their four children — were fishing from Deer Island in the river when, at about 7 p.m. Thursday, two of the children entered the water, Newburyport fire and police officials have said.
The rescue operation, which shifted to one focused on recovery Friday before it was suspended involved multiple local and state agencies, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, which said crews searched 228 square miles for 69 hours.
The initial fishing incident near Whittier Bridge
The family at the center of the tragic accident, who have not yet been identified, had been fishing and swimming at Deer Island, a recreational area in the Merrimack River between Amesbury and Newburyport and near the Whittier Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 over the river, officials said. Police initially said they were involved in a boating accident but that turned out to be untrue.
The family's father, who is 31, went to their car about 7 p.m. to get something, which is when the now-missing boy fell into the water while reaching for something in it and was swept away by the current, officials said.
The boy's mother and 7-year-old sister entered the river to help save him but were caught in the strong current as well, according to Massachusetts State Police. The father, returning from the car, saw his wife and daughter in the water and jumped in after them, but couldn't reach them and had trouble as well; he was able to get back to shore.
The current carried the mother and daughter inland, under the Whittier Bridge, where a person in a boat saw them struggling and was able to pull them out, officials said. But the mother had been having trouble hoisting herself into the boat and went under the water.
The girl and her mother were both taken to Anna Jacques Hospital in Newburyport; the girl was treated and released but her mother, whom rescuers found unresponsive and not breathing, was pronounced dead. She was 29.
The search for the missing boy
All other members of the family are accounted for, except the 6-year-old boy, whom rescuers could not find. A massive search effort continued all day Friday before it was suspended at 5 p.m., pending new information, the Coast Guard said.
“It is always a difficult decision to suspend a search and rescue case, and even more painful when children are involved,” said Capt. Kailie Benson, Coast Guard Sector Boston commander. “Considering the extensive search efforts by the Coast Guard and the numerous state and local agencies, along with on scene conditions, I have made the decision to suspend the search for the missing 6-year-old boy."
"Our prayers are with the boy and mother’s family and friends during this time,” Benson added.
Massachusetts State Police said they would resume their search Saturday after spending 10 hours looking for the boy on Friday.
The search included the Coast Guard, harbormasters, state police, local police and fire departments from around the region and state environmental police. The response included 10 Massachusetts State Police divers, and helicopters were seen searching the area.
The search was focused on the part of the river where the boy's mother and sister were pulled from the water, according to state police. Divers were using sonar and being towed behind boats to look for the boy.
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Newburyport Fire Chief Christopher LeClaire had said the search efforts would continue until about noon Friday before officials reevaluate them and decide whether to switch from a rescue to a recovery.
"We're continuing to search," he said Friday morning. "As time goes by, the chances of recovery diminish. We believe we'll be in recovery mode shortly."
He said the strong current in the river presented challenges in the search effort.
LeClaire on Thursday night described the conditions on Deer Island at the time the boy went missing and his mother and sister went into the water after him as typical, noting the river's quick pace and rocky ledge.
"It is quite heavily used this time of year. People are known to fish along the edge along Deer Island," he said.
Countless first responder vehicles could be seen parked along a bridge Thursday night, while several boats were in the water, and state police and Coast Guard helicopters were flying overhead.
NBC10 Boston talked with one woman who lives nearby and she said her husband also got into his kayak Thursday evening to help look for the child after he realized what was going on.
"My husband was out here with the dog, and I was like, what's taking so long? And then all of a sudden he's screaming at me, and he's talking about a woman and CPR," said Sue Bajko. "I came out and two fishermen came on our dock here in their boat and they pulled the woman and her daughter out of the boat and did CPR."
Len Johnson, a life-long Amesbury resident who lives along the river said, "Heaven help you if you do fall in the river, the current just can take you away in a flash."