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Ithaca man drowns at Flume in Wilmington

July 6, 2017
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE and ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writers (news@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

WILMINGTON - Just before recovery efforts hit the 24-hour mark, rescuers were able to retrieve the body of a man who is believed to have drowned in the West Branch of the AuSable River Monday afternoon, July 3.

Essex County coroner Frank Whitelaw confirmed that the body of Matthew Miller, 31, of Ithaca had been recovered at 2:10 p.m. Tuesday, July 4. Whitelaw said an autopsy would be scheduled at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. Police said the incident is being investigated as a drowning, as Miller was with friends swimming when he went under water at the swimming hole, known to most as the "Wilmington Flume." Whitelaw added that the initial rescue call came in around 3 p.m. on Monday.

Tuesday afternoon, behind yellow caution tape draped across the entrance to the swimming hole's lower set of falls, several vehicles from state police, the coroner's office, the state Department of Environmental Conservation's forest rangers and Wilmington Fire Rescue remained on the scene.

Article Photos

Rescue personnel use a Zodiac inflatable fire rescue boat and cameras attached to the end of poles in the raging whitewater of the AuSable River near the popular Wilmington Flume swimming hole Tuesday afternoon, July 4, in an attempt to find the body of a 31-year-old man from Ithaca who they say drowned at the location Monday afternoon, July 3, when swimming with fellow friends who were camping in the area.
(Photo provided — Essex County Coroner's Office)

Rescue personnel used a Zodiac inflatable fire rescue boat in the raging whitewater dropping poles with cameras attached to the end into the water to help find Miller's body. Whitelaw said that he believes Miller likely instantly sank after he jumped in from a popular jumping spot that typically is situated 15 feet above the river's cascading whitewater surface. The coroner estimated the spot is typically about 12-feet deep, though those numbers could have been altered due to the heavy deluge of rain the area experienced in the days and weeks leading up to what was a mostly dry and sunny Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Whitelaw emphasized that the increased aerated nature of the Flume where Miller jumped in would make it very difficult for anyone to successfully swim back to surface if and when the whitewater forced him downward. The coroner said the body was found near the center of the river, approximately 15 yards from where Miller jumped in at a location where the water was approximately 8 feet deep at the time of the retrieval.

"This is the exact same spot where the Plattsburgh kids (drowned in 2014)," Whitelaw said. "It's in the Flume at its most rapid part."

Whitelaw alludes to another tragic summertime incident at this location three years ago when two Plattsburgh teens drowned in the same location. The coroner added that a woman who was also swimming at the spot around the time of the incident also struggled on Saturday with the dangerous waters, but was able to get out of the river safely.

State Police Capt. Robert LaFountain relayed much the same information earlier Tuesday morning.

"He was among a bunch of campers," Whitelaw said earlier Tuesday morning, "and they had been jumping in, but apparently at some point he ran into trouble and never got out."

The Flume has two sets of waterfalls, and people often jump into the river above the lower set of falls, which was the location draped off with caution tape Tuesday. Cars were parked along the entrance to the "Flume Trails" as some vacationers walked by in swimming trunks and towels hoping to swim at the spot before turning back when coming across the taped-off scene.

Those swimming at the popular spot this weekend chose to do so after weeks of rain resulted in high water levels throughout the AuSable River watershed. The U.S. Geological Survey water gauge on the AuSable River in AuSable Forks showed a large spike in flow mid-day on June 30. River flow is measured in cubic feet per second (cfs), and the median flow rate for the AuSable River, based on 85 years of data, is somewhere in the mid-300 cfs for the month of June. On June 30, the flow rate was clocked at more than 10,000 cfs.

The National Weather Service in Burlington also showed that June was one of the wettest on record. In Burlington, Vermont, rainfall in June was almost 3.5 inches higher than normal (seventh highest rain fall total in history), and that didn't include the heavy thunderstorms June 30 to July 1.

 
 

 

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