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Drowning for Dummies

Our Town downtown
July 30, 2007

A surprisingly common way to go

If you spotted a dead body bobbing in the river in the last few weeks, join the club. Not one, not two, but three corpses were fished from the water between Sunday, July 15, and Thursday, July 19.
The first “floater” was pulled out of the Hudson at Pier 40, near West and West Houston streets. It belonged to Michael Dukes, a 30-year-old black male from Brooklyn whose family had reported him missing four days earlier. According to the medical examiner’s office, the cause of death was drowning. Police said he suffered no obvious signs of trauma.
The next day, the body of a 43-year-old Asian man, as yet unidentified, was spotted floating in the East River near the Manhattan Bridge. The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.
Three days later, a third body surfaced down at the seaport, near Front and Wall streets. The fact that police could not determine the sex and approximate age of the victim likely means it was badly decomposed.
While three floaters in five days is an abnormal cluster, it doesn’t comprise some sort of freak phenomenon or Mafia retribution.
Between 2002 and 2004, an average of 129 New Yorkers were hospitalized each year and 109 died as a result of drowning or near-drowning, according to an advisory from the State Health Commissioner.
Although the drowning rate in New York State is actually less than half the national rate, you’re still more likely to drown here than to burn to death in an apartment fire or get popped in gang-related crossfire (unless, of course, you’re in a gang, and then the odds go way up), according to the National Center for Disease Control.
Some intuit that the river is dangerous. Take Angela Swift, the 44-year-old triathletes who, before swimming the 0.9 mile leg across the Hudson, talked with a sports psychologist because, she told the Times, “I’m petrified of this swim… I can do 60 laps in the pool, no problem. But here, I really feel like I’m going to drown.”
But more often, people underestimate the power of the current. Like Dennis Kim, a 22-year-old poet who drowned in 2004 when he jumped into the Hudson after he dropped his backpack, swam 30 yards to retrieve it and was swept away from the Christopher Street pier.
In light of all this, I acknowledge that my behavior a few weeks ago might have been a bit reckless.
A middle-aged woman who had read a Water Log about my first swim in the East River e-mailed me early this month. After living a few blocks from the East River for 25 years, she had decided it was time to go in, and she wanted a companion.
I was all in. I met her at her apartment, where I changed into my bathing suit and a pair of her swim shoes. We had two glasses of white wine apiece (I did not then know that in a study of accidental drowning by the State Department of Health, 44 percent of victims over the age of 15 had alcohol in their blood.) and we each filled a plastic cup – a “traveler” – for the road. I waved dismissively at the waterskiing rope and life preservers she had set aside, but we did each take a neon Styrofoam plastic noodle.
It was just after high tide when we climbed over the railing at 20th Street onto the tiny strip of beach that was not submerged by the East River’s high tide. The temperature was in the 90s and the water felt like an ice bath. We drifted along on our noodles, pleasantly buzzed, gazing upriver at the heliport and downriver at the Williamsburg Bridge, occasionally waving at the small crowd of curious joggers and fishermen.
All of a sudden, the spectators were the size of ants and the bridge was looming majestic. I started kicking my way back upriver. My new friend started kicking too, and coughing. When I’d made it back to our starting point, I looked back to see that she had made no progress at all. If she was headed anywhere it was further downriver.
I stopped swimming and let the tide carry me back to her, and reiterated (casually, as if it were an afterthought) that we probably shouldn’t let ourselves get too far from the beach. It took me a minute to realize that she had heard me the first time, and was trying her best to fight the current – and failing. Maybe if I had been sober, and/or better informed, alarm bells would have gone off.
But as it turned out, it wasn’t until after I had towed my coughing friend back upriver on the end of my Styrofoam noodle – a semi-arduous 15-minute endeavor – and we stood dripping wet on our little beach while I polished off my traveler and she smoked one cigarette after another, that it struck me that she’d been rattled. And I probably should have been, too, because that’s exactly how unidentifiable bodies end up circling the piers.
We have tentative plans to swim again. Maybe next time we’ll bring those life jackets.