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.” ••