WILMINGTON - Searchers don't expect to find a missing swimmer alive, and they're looking in the pool below the Flume waterfall to see if the body is trapped at the bottom by a strong undercurrent.
The West Branch of the AuSable River is running higher than normal due to recent rain, and tragedy struck Thursday when a group of teenagers from Plattsburgh went swimming at the Flume, a waterfall on the West Branch near state Route 86. It's a popular swimming hole with cliffs from which people often jump into the water below, but officials still wouldn't say whether that's what the two victims were doing or if that caused the drownings.
After receiving numerous calls about swimmers in distress around 2:10 p.m. Thursday, state police and forest rangers conducted a major water rescue operation and eventually found the body of one young man - Taoufik Maknani, 17, a Plattsburgh High School senior who was supposed to graduate Saturday. An autopsy showed he died from drowning, authorities said Friday. His body was found floating about a quarter of a mile downstream, first spotted by helicopter Thursday afternoon.
Inca, a German shepherd dog with Champlain Valley Search and Rescue, stands at the water’s edge as a search and rescue team unloads a raft into the water at the Wilmington town beach. Inca specializes in finding human remains.
(Enterprise photo — Matthew Turner)
State police at the scene said they will not release the second victim's name until they find the body. The victim's family members are staying nearby in Wilmington, officials said.
Forest ranger Capt. John Streiff said he doesn't know of anyone dying at the Flume before.
"This is the first time something of this magnitude has happened here," Streiff said. "It's the first fatality, to the best of my knowledge."
On Friday, state police and forest rangers used a camera attached to a pole to search the area where the teenagers were swimming below the Flume. Police and rangers say there's an undercurrent below the rain-swollen waterfall, and they believe the missing teen's body may be trapped at the bottom of the pool.
A raft carrying two state forest rangers and two state police divers floated in the pool below the waterfall, secured in place by a rope attached to another rope that spanned the river, tied to trees on either side. The rope system was set up this morning.
"This is a very technical but safe system," Streiff said. "Because of just the nature of the swift water and the rapids, it's able to help control the raft."
In the raft, the searchers moved the pole cam under the water. The camera beamed its video to a headquarters where other state police officers watched it live, looking for the body. The police at the headquarters then use a radio to tell those on the boat where to move the pole. Those with the pole camera are searching the river in a grid-like pattern, which breaks a larger search area into smaller blocks.
About a dozen police officers and rangers stood at top of the Flume's rock ledge, assisting those in the raft by tightening and pulling the lines tied to the raft. The river near the Flume is about 60 to 70 feet wide, and the waterfall's drop is 30 feet, Streiff said.
There was an even bigger gathering of police, rangers and other first responders about a mile-and-a-half downstream at the other end of the river search area, the Wilmington town beach, where about a dozen vehicles were parked.
Shannon Bressett, of Champlain Valley Search and Rescue, was at the beach with Inca, her trained German shepherd. The dog is trained to search for human remains and had just been on the water for several hours, working with a rescue team on an inflatable boat.
"When a body is submerged underwater oils, come up from under the water," Bressett said. "Inca rides in the front of the boat with her nose near the water."
Inca searched one side of the river's shore the victim Thursday. On Friday around 1 p.m., Bressett was getting ready to take the dog along the other shore.
At a press conference at the beach late Friday morning, Streiff said that, to the best of his knowledge, all the swimmers in the two victims' group were teenagers from Plattsburgh. There was no new information released about second victim or the group.
Maknani was a standout athlete who helped lead PHS's basketball team to a sectional title this year.