By Dan Hust
COCHECTON For the second time in a week, a swimmer has drowned at Skinner’s Falls near Cochecton.
National Park Service (NPS) spokesman Loren Goering confirmed Friday morning that 19-year-old Najee Powell of Ridgefield Park, NJ died in the Delaware River Thursday evening.
“He was with a group of 10 others,” Goering related, who all decided to swim from the New York to Pennsylvania side of the river.
“He was the last one to swim across,” Goering said, adding that Powell was apparently reluctant but kept being encouraged by his compatriots. “He didn’t make it.”
One of the witnesses reportedly told officials, “What killed Najee was peer pressure.”
Halfway across, Powell began struggling, and two of his friends tried to rescue him. Goering recounted that Powell started pulling them under a common situation in drownings forcing them to let him go.
Powell was not wearing a life vest.
The emergency call came in at 6:45 p.m., said Goering, and the Sullivan County Dive Team pulled Powell’s body from about 10 feet of water at 8:15 p.m.
According to Undersheriff Eric Chaboty, also responding were the Sheriff’s Office, NPS, Cochecton Ambulance Corps and fire departments from Lake Huntington, Narrowsburg and Beach Lake, PA.
This is the third drowning on the Delaware in the past two weeks, with the most recent one being just a few yards upriver from where Powell drowned.
As a result of prior drownings, NPS Supt. Sean McGuinness met in Narrowsburg on Friday with emergency officials from Sullivan, Orange, Delaware, Wayne (Pa.) and Pike (Pa.) counties.
“Every county was represented from all around the upper Delaware River,” McGuinness related.
The question at the top of their minds, according to attendee Sullivan County Public Safety Commissioner Richard Martinkovic, was, “How do we do a better job of trying to protect the people on the river?”
Three initiatives emerged, he added, including creating an inventory of available water response resources in the five-county region.
Another, said McGuinness, was to order 20 or so signs warning visitors not to swim across the river. They’ll be installed later this week at access points, both public and private.
“The key is, people don’t have the skill to swim in a river like they do in an ocean or a lake,” he said, with the signs reminding potential swimmers of that fact.
But the most significant result of Friday’s meeting, said both men, was an agreement to better coordinate cross-county responses to emergencies.
“Everything we do here is a partnership,” McGuinness explained.
For illustration purposes, he used the example of a canoe wrapped around a bridge pier in the middle of the river. Since the New York-Pennsylvania border runs through the river, more than one county may get a 911 call, leading to multiple responses when perhaps only one is needed.
It was also agreed that once NPS personnel arrive at the site of a river emergency, the Park Service becomes the lead agency though volunteer responders will remain critical at every effort.
“We all agreed to support each other the best we can,” McGuinness said. “How can we be more efficient so our volunteers are really being used most effectively?”
Martinkovic added that the underlying goal is to remove the need to respond to such tragedies.
“We don’t want anybody to drown,” he stated.