Dangerous swim spot claims another life

13-year-old Brandon Boyle drowned after swim­ming in Pennypack Creek with his young­er broth­er and some friends. 

  • Troubled waters: The creek was swollen with rainwater where Brandon Boyle, 13, and his brother, Anthony, 11, jumped into the water on July 1. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • K9 Spike’ searches the creek with handler Chris Johnson of Philadelphia Recovery Dogs. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • The bridge where Brandon Boyle jumped into the water. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Troubled waters: A boy walks onto the bridge in Pennypack Creek where Brandon Boyle, 13, and his brother, Anthony, 11, jumped into the water on July 1. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Phil­adelphia po­lice Capt. Joe Zaffino knew it was only a mat­ter of time.

He didn’t know when an­oth­er per­son would drown while swim­ming in Pennypack Creek, but he was cer­tain it would hap­pen. For years, he’s been try­ing to warn people about the per­ils of the creek, which winds for some eight miles through the heart of the North­east.

The seem­ingly in­ev­it­able happened on Ju­ly 1 when the stream’s storm-swollen cur­rents pulled a 13-year-old Bell’s Corner boy, Brandon Boyle, be­low the wa­ter’s sur­face and over a dam as he, a young­er broth­er and two friends frol­icked in the Pennypack not far from the Boyle home.

Just one month earli­er, Zaffino said, po­lice res­cued two oth­er youths from the same pop­u­lar swim­ming spot, al­though swim­ming is pro­hib­ited any­where in the creek. And three years ago, a 20-year-old thrill-seeker drowned there while try­ing to nav­ig­ate the de­cept­ively dan­ger­ous wa­ter­fall over the dam in a make­shift raft.

“Over the past few years, we’ve had two drown­ings,” said Zaffino, whose 7th Po­lice Dis­trict ter­rit­ory in­cludes the por­tion of the creek west of Roosevelt Boulevard. “[The dam] has def­in­itely been a hot spot for people jump­ing in and go­ing over the falls. I’ve ac­tu­ally chased them away, told them to pack it up and leave. It’s the only swim­ming hole in the 7th, the only one I know.”

Au­thor­it­ies said they be­lieve that Brandon and his broth­er jumped in­to the wa­ter from a foot­bridge just north of the dam, which cre­ates an ar­ti­fi­cially deep pool of wa­ter. In most places, the creek is less than waist-deep. Just up­stream from the dam, it’s usu­ally between five and sev­en feet deep, Zaffino said.

An­thony Boyle, 11, sur­vived the or­deal after mak­ing his way to the bank and alert­ing a passerby, who was an off-duty po­lice of­ficer. He was taken to a loc­al hos­pit­al for treat­ment of un­spe­cified in­jur­ies, then re­leased. Au­thor­it­ies didn’t say wheth­er the two friends ever made it in­to the wa­ter.

Kids use the foot­bridge and nearby trees as launch­ing points. Mike Boyle, an uncle of the boy who drowned, thinks that the con­fig­ur­a­tion is a strong tempta­tion to care­free kids.

“Kids are go­ing to go swim­ming. We’ve all done it. Kids swim in creeks. That’s what they do,” he said. “But that bridge is al­most an in­vit­a­tion, it really is. And kids are fear­less.”

After storms, the wa­ter gets much deep­er as pre­cip­it­a­tion drains from trib­u­tary streams in the Pennypack wa­ter­shed, which cov­ers more than 56 square miles in Phil­adelphia, Mont­gomery and Bucks counties.

The cur­rent gets stronger, too. On a “really dry” day, the wa­ter falls about four feet over the dam. But when Boyle dis­ap­peared, the wa­ter level was al­most the same on both sides of the dam. Some people are more likely to test the wa­ters in post-storm con­di­tions.

“That’s the at­trac­tion,” Zaffino said. “That swim­ming hole is usu­ally quiet, but come a storm or flash flood, it’s like, ‘Let’s run down to the creek, jump off the bridge and go over the falls.’ There’s no ques­tion about it. It’s like a thrill. The wa­ter is run­ning faster.”

Des­pite the swim­ming ban, young people rarely hes­it­ate or try to hide that they’re do­ing it, even in nor­mal con­di­tions. While re­port­ing on vari­ous du­bi­ous activ­it­ies in the park last Ju­ly, the North­east Times and Zaffino en­countered a group of youths in the wa­ter.

“Those kids had beach tow­els and they were out there for the day,” the cap­tain said.

With the thick woods of Pennypack Park sur­round­ing the creek, po­lice don’t routinely patrol there. Like­wise, the city’s De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation has only a few full-time rangers to patrol the 1,600-acre park, so en­force­ment is spotty.

North­east res­id­ent Stan­ley Needle, 55, prob­ably sees more than the au­thor­it­ies do. He’s an avid moun­tain biker, hiker and park ad­voc­ate through the Pennypack Park Trail Al­li­ance. Days be­fore the Boyle drown­ing, Needle said he saw wooden boards sit­ting on partly sub­merged rocks just down­stream from the dam. The boards had been part of a four-foot rail­ing on the foot­bridge.

“The kids smashed them off so they could jump off [the bridge],” said Needle, who has seen sim­il­ar dam­age many times. “The park [sys­tem] re­places it reg­u­larly.”

In the af­ter­math of Boyle’s dis­ap­pear­ance, fire­fight­ers and po­lice launched a search with­in minutes. Search­ers were po­si­tioned at every bridge and road­way over­pass along the creek from the dam to the Delaware River. Fam­ily and friends of the vic­tim, along with hun­dreds of ran­dom cit­izens, gathered to help can­vass the park.

Po­lice had to cut short their search on the first day be­cause the wa­ter was still too dan­ger­ous.

“Our diver, we had trouble pulling him out of the wa­ter and he was tied up with four lines,” Zaffino said. “And he was an ex­per­i­enced swim­mer and diver, ex­per­i­enced in all levels of hand­ling wa­ter. It star­ted rip­ping his SCUBA mask off his face.”

A cit­izen de­scribed by po­lice only as a pass­er-by found Boyle’s re­mains at about 6:30 a.m. last Thursday along the creek near the 2700 block of Holme Ave. 

The epis­ode was eer­ily re­min­is­cent of a drown­ing on Ju­ly 13, 2010. Saul­i­us Kvara­ciejus, 20, was try­ing to use a child’s in­flat­able pool to ride the storm cur­rent over the dam. He dis­ap­peared in rough wa­ters. Friends found his body two days later near Rhawn Street and Lex­ing­ton Av­en­ue, said Lt. Mike Root of the 7th dis­trict.

An­oth­er tragedy was nearly aver­ted on June 3 when po­lice res­cued a boy, 16, and girl, 13, who had been swim­ming in the creek. The youths be­came stran­ded amid a rap­id cur­rent. Po­lice found the girl cling­ing to a rock and the boy to a tree. Of­ficers tried to toss life­lines to both youths, but the wa­ter swept the ropes down­stream. After sev­er­al at­tempts, the of­ficers pulled both youths to safety. They were not in­jured ser­i­ously.

“I’ve been very clear about keep­ing your kids out of this wa­ter, wheth­er it’s a nice day or a rainy day with rap­ids,” Zaffino said. “It’s not a safe place to be.”  •• 

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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