New Castle News

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July 15, 2014

Teen is fourth drowning victim in swimming spot

NEW CASTLE — Sunday’s drowning victim at Kennedy Mill is John Wayne Durnell, 17, of Ellwood City, according to state police.

Emergency crews said Durnell was hiking with a friend along the Slippery Rock Creek before 4:30 p.m. when they tried to swim across and he drowned in about eight feet of water.

He is believed to be the fourth drowning victim in recent months in that area of the creek, about a mile downstream from the bridge near Camp Agawam.

The water was 73 degrees and the current was mild, divers said, but they describe the area as treacherous because of a large, cavernous, underwater rock that diverts the stream and splits it, creating a vacuum.

As a result, diving teams summoned to search for Durnell knew where to look. They were called about 4:35 p.m. by the Slippery Rock Township Volunteer Fire Department and entered the stream around 6 p.m.

“It took us longer to get down to the site and set up than it did to actually find him,” explained David Rishel, a Shenango Township firefighter and experienced diver.

It took more than an hour for them to walk to the spot where Durnell had gone under and put on their gear, then about 20 minutes to find his body, while Neshannock Township’s swift water rescue team held the ropes of a safety line for the divers in the water.

Rishel’s son, Brandon, also a diver, recovered Durnell, who was laden with 18-inch hiking boots, camouflage canvas shorts, a machete and a T-shirt, David Rishel said.

Rich Johnson, Lawrence County deputy coroner, ruled the death a freshwater drowning. No autopsy was performed.

The Rishels were among two teams of seven divers from Lawrence County and New Castle Fire Department dive teams who trudged along narrow hillside paths toting their gear.

David Rishel said the two youths had started out at Camp Agawam hiking, and when they got to the creek, decided to cross it. The first one made it across, he said, but Durnell started across, then went down. His friend tried to get him out of the water, he added, but couldn’t.

“When you get into a current, you’re helpless,” Rishel continued. “The other youth was very fortunate to get across.”

Durnell was about eight feet from where divers had found a previous drowning victim, Rishel said, adding, “I believe this was the fourth person we’ve gotten out of this particular hole.”

Rishel and diver Craig Wethli of the New Castle Fire Department agree, the creek there is a dangerous place to swim, and it’s also dangerous for rescue crews, both in getting there and getting into the water, then hiking back out.

“It’s treacherous,” Rishel said. “We were actually in the water when it started to rain hard.”

The path on the way back out was muddy and slippery.

“It was like an ice skating rink,” Rishel said. “One slip and someone could have fallen 15 to 20 feet.”

Wethli noted that section of creek near the bridge is the site of a drowning nearly every year, despite signs warning against swimming.

“It’s dangerous,” he said. “It’s a popular swimming area but the kids who swim there are actually trespassing. It’s also dangerous for divers. There are undercut rocks and caves under the water that divers can get stuck in. We were diving tethered.”

Several local fire departments and ambulances also assisted at the scene.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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