Drowning Victim Recovered: Police Say Alcohol Was Not a Factor
Divers are picked up after the body of a drowning victim on the Connecticut River was recovered between Norwich and Hanover. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Divers are ferried back to a staging area after the body of a drowning victim was recovered from the Connecticut River yesterday. A rope swing hangs in the foreground. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Officials wait for divers on a boat dock behind the Chieftain Motor Inn on the Connecticut River in Hanover yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — The young man who drowned in the Connecticut River Wednesday evening during a party for Dartmouth College students did not consume alcohol in the hours before his death, police said yesterday.
Divers from the state Fish and Game Department recovered the body of the man, who was the brother of a graduating Dartmouth student, around 9:30 a.m. yesterday in an 18-foot-deep section of the river, not far from where he was last seen.
The victim, a foreign national who attended college in Texas, drowned after crossing the river from the Chieftain Motor Inn in Hanover, where a party was held, to Patchen’s Point in Norwich, where he jumped off a rope swing. He briefly resurfaced and flailed his arms before going back under. His brother and other students in the area conducted a frantic search in the moments after he submerged.
Police have yet to release the victim’s name, pending notification of relatives overseas. The death cast a pall over the college as the campus prepares for a celebratory weekend packed with commencement activities.
Hanover Police Capt. Frank Moran said that while the investigation is ongoing, authorities do not believe alcohol was a factor. That party had a catered bar.
“This was regulated,” Moran said.
Yesterday, students who were at the inn described an atmosphere of heavy drinking and limited supervision. The party, dubbed Riverfest, was organized by the Dartmouth Class of 2013 Council and drew an estimated 250 revelers. There was one 17-year-old lifeguard watching over swimmers and canoeists.
“I’m sure there were people on these canoes who couldn’t swim, or who were drunk, because there was alcohol there,” Dartmouth senior Alan Gottesman said yesterday.
Gottesman said he was one of five friends who responded to cries for help and searched for the victim. Other students at the party who happened to be trained lifeguards also swam across the river to try to help, witnesses said.
Several students ventured into the river in canoes provided by the inn during the course of the event, Chieftain manager Jennifer Barton said. Life jackets are available but adults are not required to wear them, Barton said.
Gottesman said that many canoes seemed overcrowded, and many of the occupants were not wearing life jackets.
“It really could have taken just one person to say these people shouldn’t be in canoes or these people need life jackets,” Gottesman said.
Representatives from the Class of 2013 Council did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Barton said the party didn’t seem out of control, citing previous events in which she and co-manager Carl Barton, her husband, dealt with belligerent and drunken students who used canoes improperly. In those cases, Barton said, students were ordered off the boats and made to leave the property.
The lone lifeguard at Riverfest, a 17-year-old Hanover High School senior, told the Valley News that he was the only guard hired for the event but brought along a friend who was also a trained lifeguard. He said he was sitting by the boat dock at the inn, watching swimmers, when someone called out “saying that someone dove in, went down and didn’t come back up.”
He and his friend swam across the Connecticut River and attempted a search, walking along the muddy shallows near the rope swing.
Barton said the inn does not provide life guards for events.
Dartmouth College spokesman Justin Anderson said the college had little involvement with the off-campus function.
“It’s the class’ event. They are a student organization like a fraternity ...” Anderson said. “Because it was off-campus, it wasn’t an event that was governed by Dartmouth social event policies. It’s a student organization that had an off-campus party, that’s what it is.”
A representative from the Class of 2013 Council and Barton were listed on an event permit that organizers obtained from the town in May. The permit, which was approved by the police and fire departments and Town Manager Julia Griffin, addressed issues such as noise and traffic but did not dictate safety precautions. The permit said Riverfest would run from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., and feature a professional bartender.
In an email to students announcing the event, the Class of 2013 Council advertised “Kegs, DJs, Stinson’s BBQ, Slip n Slide and More! Bring your state-issued ID if you want to drink!”
Hanover Police Lt. Michael Evans said that a permit was not required for the event because it was held on private property, but town officials encourage student groups to obtain one in case problems arise.
“It’s nice to know, if we have problems, who we address them with,” Evans said. “It’s nice to know who the planners are.”
Wednesday’s tragedy revived long-standing concerns at Dartmouth about the dangerous combination of students, alcohol and the Connecticut River.
In 2006, town and school officials discontinued Tubestock, an alcohol-fueled summer event that drew as much as 1,000 people to the river in rafts and inner tubes. The event, which had no official organizer and was not sanctioned by the college, was shut down after a student drowned while attempting to swim across the river near campus in 2005. (The drowning did not occur during Tubestock.)
Anderson said Dartmouth College has taken additional steps to increase safety on the river. The school routinely cuts down rope swings along the Connecticut River, he said, and requires all students to pass a swim test before graduating.
“That does not occur in a vacuum. It’s because we are located on a river and students are going to be on the river,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately, the river is both beautiful and a huge asset to the college, and also something that inherently poses risk. Dartmouth takes water safety very seriously.”
Evans noted a key difference between Tubestock and Riverfest. Tubestock occurred entirely on the river, rather than private property, placing it under the purview of state and local authorities.
“Tubestock was a water event,” Evans said. “It occurred on the surface of the water. This was a lawn event.”
New Hampshire Fish and Game Lt. James Kneeland said yesterday that the search for the victim was slowed by murky waters; visibility was less than two feet under water.
“The Connecticut River is always difficult because it’s so silty and dark,” Kneeland said.
Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson said his officers periodically patrol Patchen’s Point, and both Norwich police and Dartmouth Safety and Security officers routinely cut down rope swings there, Robinson said.
The ropes, however, are quickly replaced, Robinson said, and the area where the drowning occurred has not proven especially dangerous.
“We patrol it regularly — if we see cars, we will go and see what’s going on,” Robinson said. “We get underage drinking parties there, but just as many times, it’s families having a cookout.”
Patchen’s Point and the surrounding land is owned by the Vermont Agency of Transportation, which purchased several parcels along the nearby railroad tracks about 20 years ago, Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton said.
Yesterday morning, two ropes dangling from a tree appeared to have been cut and were not accessible from the bank. A third rope, dangling 30 feet from a tree leaning over the river, was still intact.
Valley News staff writer Liz Sauchelli contributed to this report. Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304. Katie Mettler can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3234.