River Rescue

Rich Rogers, district game biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and member of the Romney Volunteer Fire Department, (green shirt) operates the motor guiding the flat bottom john boat through strong currents Wednesday morning with Jim Woodson of the Springfield Volunteer Fire Department in the bow. Also seated in the boat are the two rescued campers, Shane Merritt and Eric Ritchie.

SPRINGFIELD, W.Va. - A strong current wedged two men and a boat and the dock to which it was moored against a tangled mess of trees and debris in the South Branch of the Potomac River Wednesday morning.

Shane Merritt and Eric Ritchie, both in their 20s, had to be rescued from the swift river by Romney and Springfield volunteer fire departments assisted by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

"The two gents were attempting to secure a boat against the rising water near the John Blue Bridge downstream from Romney," according to Lt. H.E. Shaver of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

"The support system holding the boat dock to the bank failed," Shaver said.

Carol Abe, a friend, said the boat and dock is owned by her mother, Waneta Yoder of Cumberland. Yoder operates the camp on Wagoner Farm where the men were staying.

"The boys saw that dock was breaking loose and were trying to secure it," said Abe.

The pontoon boat with the two men on it as well as the boat dock, held up by flotation devices, were swept downstream by the strong current for about two miles and got lodged in some brush and trees in the middle of the river.

"Their predicament was noticed by some local residents and they called the 911 center," Shaver said.

Rocky Nestor, who grew up in Cumberland and lives along the river in a house he built, typically looks out his window in the morning checking the river and watching the wildlife.

"I saw the guys floating down the river, went down to assist and called to them and they responded. They asked me to go up river and contact their people and let them know they were OK. Then I asked, 'Do you need further help?' and they said, 'Yes,' and I dialed 911," said Nestor, estimating the time around 10 a.m.

"The river is really up. It was in an area of a fast current, with a lot of debris in the water - a dangerous situation due to the water conditions," said Shaver Wednesday afternoon.

Rich Rogers, district game biologist with the DNR and member of Romney Volunteer Fire Department trained in swift water rescue, was operating the rescue boat with Jim Woodson from the Springfield Volunteer Fire Department riding the bow.

"It's a flat bottom john boat, sits pretty high in the water. It's got a pretty big motor on it," said Rogers.

"But it's not the boat, it's knowing how to handle the boat that's the problem. You've got to know if you have the power to go upstream against the current. There are a lot of decisions to make out there," he said.

The two men, the pontoon boat and the dock were "hung up crosswise to the current. The current was pushing them against the brush. There's a lot of pressure of water coming down there," said Rogers.

"The brush acts like a strainer. Water keeps going through but you can't push off of it," said Rogers.

The bunch of trees sticking out of the water would have been an island if the water was lower, according to Rogers.

The incident, which occurred at Camp Cliffside Road at Blue Beach off state Route 28, was reported to Hampshire County emergency services at 10:39 a.m. and the victims were recovered at 11:44 a.m.

Springfield and Lambert's ambulances also responded, although there were no injuries.

Two other water rescues occurred in the area on Wednesday.

Burlington Volunteer Fire Department responded to a 2:09 p.m. report of two adolescent boys from the Burlington United Methodist Home who were swept away by the current as they were swimming in Mill Creek.

Burlington Volunteer Fire Department Second Lt. Eric Veach said one boy was pulled out by rope and the other was within arm's reach. Both were taken to Potomac Valley Hospital following the incident.

The Mineral County Sheriff Department and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources also responded along with Valley Medical.

In another incident, Capon Bridge fire and rescue responded to River Road off U.S. Route 50 in the rescue of several parties from the Capon River.

All parties were reported out of the water and accounted for as of 4:55 p.m. Romney, Capon Springs and two fire companies from Frederick County, Va., also responded.

West Virginia State Police investigated.

Alison Bunting can be reached at abunting@times-news.com.

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