Local take on tragedy
WILMINGTON – Five days after two teenagers drowned at the Flume, a popular swimming hole on the West Branch of the AuSable River, locals are still discussing the incident and how the community pulled together during the emergency rescue.
Taoufik Maknani, 17, and Michael Lawson, 17, both of Plattsburgh, were friends and basketball players together at Plattsburgh High School. Maknani was set to graduate this past Saturday. Lawson had one more year os high school left. Instead, they died Thursday while swimming at the Flume.
The river was much higher than normal Thursday, with strong undercurrents and frothy whitewater due to two previous days of rain. A major water rescue operation took place that afternoon and over the weekend, with around 100 first responders on scene the first day, including the state police, forest rangers and local emergency crews.
On Monday, flowers sat by a path that leads down to the Flume, a rock-filled pool with 30-foot cliff ledges on either side of the river. It’s a picturesque swimming spot. More than a dozen people swam there, and some teenagers jumped from the rock cliffs. Many of them said they were unaware of the drownings.
Wilmington Volunteer Fire Department members were many of the first responders on scene, including town of Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston, who is also the department’s assistant fire chief. The nearby Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department had the first rescue boat in the water shortly after the calls were made. However, the fire department members were far from the only ones who pitched in during the emergency.
Jerry Bottcher, the owner of the Hungry Trout in Wilmington, sheltered the Lawson family for free at his motel.
“Mrs. Lawson showed up here with her brother and nieces,” Bottcher said. “The (state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation) guy came in with the missing boy’s mother, and he said she’s going to need lodging for a couple of days.”
Bottcher said he offered the grieving mother a free suite.
“Although we were extremely busy, we gave her a suite, and they stayed here,” Bottcher said. “A couple of rescue guys and the BCI came down to talk to her late in the afternoon, and I thought they had found him – but they hadn’t.”
Bottcher said the woman’s husband passed away several years ago and that Lawson was her only child.
“A small community like this bends over backwards at times like this,” Bottcher said. “I’ve been here almost 40 years and this type of event brings out why we live in this town. If we were allowed too, I can tell you there would be 600 people on that river trying to help out. Wilmington is that kind of a town.”
Roy and Becky Holzer, who own the Little Supermarket in Wilmington, fed the dozens of hungry rescue workers.
“My wife worked on coordinating it,” Roy Holzer said. “We coordinated in the morning to make sure the rescue workers received coffee, but what we did was nothing to what those guys did out there sunrise to sunset looking for those guys.”
Holzer said the morning routine was to deliver the tired rescue workers coffee and find out what they wanted for lunch and food throughout the day.
“Our community always steps up for times like this, anytime someone needs a helping hand,” Holzer said.
Many of the locals, when asked about the deaths at the Flume, said the location is not a safe swimming spot and that many “out-of-towners” don’t know this.
“I never let my sons swim there,” said Mary-Ellen Walker, who works at Adirondack Chocolates. “If they did, I didn’t know.”
Tom Conway, the owner of AuSable River Two Fly Shop, said his father told him not to swim in places like that when he was a boy.
“Unfortunately, accidents happen,” Conway said. “I really feel for them. It’s a horrible thing, I’m sure, watching your friend drown. … It’s not safe up there to be swimming.”
Conway, a volunteer fireman who did not go on the rescue call, said he has heard over the years a lot of injuries have occurred at the Flume. State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger Capt. John Streiff told the Enterprise in an interview they were the first deaths to occur there in recent years.
Art Gates of Wilmington said out-of-towners don’t know the Flume can be dangerous.
“It’s not safe to swim there,” Gates said. “It’s a tragedy. It’s something that shouldn’t happen. It’s sad to see.”