Students Tried in Vain to Mount Rescue
Dartmouth College seniors Jeff Wilson, left, of Newbury, N.H., and Alan Gottesman, of Burlington, recount Wednesday's drowning. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Abandoning the lawn of the Chieftain Motor Inn where their classmates drank keg beer, listened to country music and played volleyball, the five Dartmouth College seniors — Alan Gottesman, Galen Pospisil, Dani Wang, Ethan Wang and Jeff Wilson — piled into a canoe just before 6 p.m. and eased out onto the Connecticut River.
The canoe was probably over capacity, Wilson said yesterday, but on a sunny, carefree evening just days before graduation, water safety wasn’t at the forefront of their minds as they paddled toward Vermont.
In the distance was Patchen’s Point, where a trapeze-like rope swing hangs from a towering pine tree near the water’s edge. Floating about 100 feet from shore, the quintet watched as a fellow reveler — as dozens of others had done that day — swung through the air and dropped into the chilly water below.
Gottesman said he watched the man’s flailing arms break the surface and disappear again. Then someone on shore started screaming for help. It was a classmate. “That’s my brother, he can’t swim!” he yelled.
Wilson and Gottesman immediately dove in.
“A couple seconds later, I was right where his arms were and he was gone,” Gottesman said.
Pospisil paddled the canoe to shore before joining his friends in the water. Ethan Wang called 911 and connected with a Vermont dispatcher. The victim’s older brother, a Dartmouth senior, also tried to call 911, but his cell phone had no reception.
Gottesman said he used a long branch to probe the murky water, hoping in vain to provide the victim something to grasp onto.
“I thought I found him, but when I jumped down, there was nothing there,” Gottesman said.
After several unsuccessful dives to the river bottom, Pospisil began to realize the gravity of the situation and climbed back into the canoe. Alone, he paddled back toward the inn, where his classmates, unaware of the tragedy unfolding on the opposite shore, continued to blare music and enjoy barbecue. They couldn’t hear his desperate calls for help.
After reaching shore, a frantic Pospisil scanned the crowd for a familiar face and locked eyes with a friend and instructed him to call 911.
Unsure of exactly who was in charge of the event, Pospisil alerted the caterer, Jack Stinson, of Hanover, who yelled to Jennifer Barton, co-manager of the Chieftain.
“I just yelled, ‘Lifeguards!’ ” Barton said yesterday afternoon.
About a half dozen individuals, at least one of them a life guard hired for the event, headed across the Connecticut to assist the rescue effort. Wilson said they tried to conduct a systematic sweep of the river, entering and exiting the water with arms locked in a line.
“The whole time I was in the water I was imagining it was my little brother,” Wilson said.
Wilson then climbed up the bank, hoping the higher vantage point would reveal some clue of the victims location. But there was nothing.
“There’s just so many things that could have happened,” Wilson said yesterday. “If we were there just 10 seconds sooner we could have had him.”
“A matter of life and death was just 10 seconds,” Gottesman added.
Search and rescue crews joined the students at Patchen’s Point about 25 minutes after the victim went under, Wilson said, and the four friends climbed into a canoe shortly after to return to the Chieftain.
“One of the most surreal parts was coming back across in the canoe and hundreds of people from our class were just staring at us,” Gottesman said.
The students were questioned by authorities, then given hand and foot warmers in an ambulance on site. An acquaintance drove them back to campus. It would be the next morning before Fish and Game divers would locate the body, in 18 feet of water not far from where the man was last seen.
“All five of us who were in the canoe just want to extend our condolences to (the older brother) and his family and friends,” Wilson said. “I think the whole community just needs to come together around them.”
On campus yesterday, the pulse was anything but ordinary for the typically joyful days in the run-up to graduation.
“I think people are generally somber and sad,” Sam Upton, a senior from Michigan, said yesterday as he stood with friends on the front porch of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. “It’s in the corner of people’s minds.”
Upton was at Riverfest but had left just before the mayhem unfolded. His friend Deby Guzman-Buchness, a sophomore from Cambridge, Mass., was still at the Chieftain when authorities arrived.
“I don’t really think we understood the gravity of the situation until 10 minutes later,” she said.
Guzman-Buchness said that about 20 minutes after that, authorities began asking students to leave. A bus that had been carting students back and forth from campus every 15 minutes started running again, and some students chose to walk.
Dean of the College staff, counselors, and the college chaplain were available at Collis Common Ground Wednesday until about midnight, Special Assistant to the Dean of the College Elizabeth Agosto said.
Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson and Interim President Carol Folt wrote an email to the Dartmouth community yesterday, offering an update on the drowning and condolences to the family.
“Our community is deeply saddened by the loss of this young man, and we are full of grief for his Dartmouth brother, who is experiencing deep sorrow at a time that should fill him with joy,” the email said.
The email informed students of additional counseling that was offered throughout yesterday with Counseling and Human Development, the Advising Center and the chaplain. Open hours at Residential Education will be held today from 9:30 a.m. to noon in Judge 110 and from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the Choates office.
Senior Week festivities continued on campus yesterday, as students picked up their caps and gowns and ate barbecue at the Choates Volleyball Court. There will be a graduate reception tonight, individual school ceremonies tomorrow and a baccalaureate multi-faith service at Rollins Chapel at 3 p.m.
Meanwhile, on the Connecticut River yesterday afternoon, Chieftain co-manager Carl Barton picked up the trash and belongings left behind from the Riverfest party that had dissipated around him the night before.
Across the river, where less than 24 hours prior a pleasant springtime gathering had devolved into catastrophe, a group of high-schoolers on Patchen’s Point took turns gripping the trapeeze swing and dropping into the river below.
Katie Mettler can be reached at 603-727-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.