RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As the end of summer nears, first responders have shared their concerns on a disturbing trend: an uptick in deaths along the James River.
According to Battalion Chief of Special Operations Scott Archibeque with the Henrico County Division of Fire, the number of calls for assistance on the river has increased in 2022 since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Archibeque attributed the trend to coronavirus-related restrictions being lifted, prompting more activity on the water.
Speaking with 8News on Wednesday, Friends of the James River Park (FOJRP) Executive Director Josh Stutz noted that there has been a fatality along the James River during each of the major holiday weekends so far this summer.
“The only real common factor in the three incidents we saw this summer was the river itself,” he said. “We can chalk that up largely to the big increase that we’ve seen in park usage and river usage around Richmond; sort of, the secret’s out, people are getting out there and enjoying it. But that also comes with new folks who, maybe, aren’t as experienced or don’t know where to go, and we’re seeing some issues connected to that.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, a group of 12 individuals went over Bosher’s Dam, ultimately costing two young women their lives. During the Independence Day holiday weekend, 17-year-old Glen Allen High School student Julia Budzinski was presumed to have died in a boating accident. Most recently, during Labor Day weekend, a young man is believed to have drowned, and the Richmond Fire Department later confirmed that a male body was found during recovery operations on the James River.
“The conditions were completely different, the weather was different, the activity was different, and the locations along the river, completely different,” Stutz said. “We’re seeing issues that no one solution could’ve resolved.”
During the Memorial Day weekend incident, the water levels were above 9 ft. According to the City of Richmond’s Parks and Recreation Department, by law, when water levels are at 5 feet and above, life jackets are required for any individual on the river. The department’s website also noted, “When water levels are at 9 feet or above, no one is allowed on the river without a permit.” However, Stutz said that has not been the case for a number of years.
“There’s nothing except for personal judgment that stops people from going out there,” he said. “At all levels, the river can be dangerous.”
Stutz said another factor at play during the Memorial Day weekend incident that cost the two young women their lives, was Bosher’s Dam itself.
“The low-head dams on the James River need to be avoided at all costs. They have something like a 96% fatality rate for people who go over a low-head dam, so it’s incredibly dangerous,” he said. “Water flowing over the dam curves sort of back on itself and creates this sort of washing machine situation that will pull anything and everything to the bottom. I mean, it’s pretty inescapable.”
With the Labor Day weekend incident on the James River, Stutz noted that the water levels were relatively low, which can present its own set of dangers.
“You really have to pay attention to footing and what’s going on in the river around you, especially at places like Pony Pasture, Texas Beach; places where there are a lot of the big boulders that’s sort of unique to the geography of Richmond,” he said. “One minute, you could be knee-deep, having a great time in some cool water, and the next, you are over your head, stuck between rocks, or you’ve fallen into a cave or a pit.”
Both Stutz and Archibeque said that preparedness is imperative for safety on the water. Stutz also added that water rescue teams in and around Richmond are among the busiest in the country, with a peak season that runs from April to the beginning of October.
“It’s really important that you check the conditions before you leave your house,” Stutz said. “I think what happens for a lot of folks is they get to the water, and they’ve already made the investment to get down there, and a sign at the riverside is not going to stop them from going out without proper equipment.”
Even still, FOJRP and the James River Outdoor Coalition have worked to create messaging in both English and Spanish to inform potential water-goers of the conditions and personal responsibility when it comes to river safety.
Archibeque said that those going out on the river should come up with a plan for all involved, and share it with someone who is not in the water so that that individual can call for help in the event of an emergency.
“The most frequent offender of river rescues is folks who get out there on tubes and miss their take-outs, or end up on the rapids on accident, or bang off a rock and get hurt,” Stutz said. “In Richmond, it can be a great river for tubing at the right levels. It can also be a really rough time if the water’s too high or too low.”