When David Rishel got the call Wednesday night, he knew what had happened.
A member of the Lawrence County Dive Team, Rishel — also Shenango Township’s fire chief — has come to expect being summoned to Slippery Rock Creek drownings as the weather warms and people head outdoors to enjoy it.
“I got there as soon as I could,” he said. “My son Brandon was already in the water.”
Within 90 minutes — about 7:30 p.m. — the father-son diving team found the body of Mazzarney Kiyham Sanford, 22, of West Penn Street, Butler. He was in 18 to 20 feet of fast-moving water, they said, tightly wedged between two boulders in a hole about 300 yards below Kennedy Mill Bridge in Slippery Rock Township. It took the efforts of both men to pry Sanford lose.
Sanford had been with friends at a popular swimming hole on private property.
“The advantage was his friends saw where he went down and could show us,” Rishel said.
Even if Sanford had been a good swimmer, he said, “the water temperature was 72 degrees. When your body, at 98.6 degrees, plunges into that, it goes into a slight shock. Sometimes you don’t recover.”
Rishel also was pleased the recovery had been made before dark. Conditions along the creek’s banks, which are challenging in the daytime, are unsafe after dark.
“It’s difficult to get into and out of these places,” he said. “And when you’re carrying 100 pounds of gear and a victim, it’s even harder getting out.”
Rishel noted the site of the drowning is not safe but is a popular swimming spot. He said “about 70 kids” were leaving as he arrived.
Also participating in the rescue were the New Castle Fire Department divers, who are members of the Lawrence County Diving Team, the Butler County Diving Team, Scott, Princeton, Shenango, Hickory and Slippery Rock volunteer fire departments from Lawrence County and Portersville Volunteer Fire Department from Butler County.
Scott Township Fire Chief Jack Hitchen manned the command center.
The 50 people involved, Hitchen said, have been trained and certified for swift water rescue.
He said Slippery Rock Creek is a dangerous river and people who enjoy it must learn to respect it.
“This is the first drowning at Kennedy Mills and McConnell’s Mill this season,” he said. “It won’t be the last.”
Chief George Johnson of the Slippery Rock Township Volunteer Fire Department, said the call came at 6:15 p.m. His department wrapped up at 8:45 p.m.
“That hole had been posted,” he said, “But people tore the signs down.”
Johnson said the creek and its many swimming holes are deceptive.
“The first foot down you have normal water. After that, it can be raging. It’s a stream that kills.”
In the last year, he said, rescue teams have participated in three searches and six falls involving people who veer off marked trails or rappel down cliff walls. Generally, he added, at least one accidental drowning occurs each year.
He added that volunteer rescue workers are trained and certified in many rescue procedures and provide excellent help. “But we signed on to be firefighters. Between medical calls, vehicle accidents and rescues, fighting fires is the thing we do the least.”
Johnson recommended users of McConnell’s Mill State Park use common sense and consider safety.
“The water is deceiving. We’ve pulled out many expert swimmers. Instructors and even rescuers are not exempt from becoming victims.”
He advised park visitors to stay on marked trails and paths and follow the rules.
“Respect the creek and shoreline. Enjoy the park but do it safely. The choices you make could mean life or death.”