Just seconds after the first fireworks brightened the sky above Chestertown last night, the celebration came to a halt as authorities learned that a 4-year-old boy had toppled from his family's boat and disappeared into the Chester River while waiting for the display to begin.
Divers from several local fire departments and the state police combed the river for more than three hours looking for the boy, while a helicopter hovered over the dark waters shining a spotlight to assist the would-be rescuers.
Police said the boy apparently fell overboard at 9:15 p.m about a quarter-mile south of the Chester River Bridge. The search was suspended shortly before 1 a.m.
The tragedy struck as the streets along the riverfront and nearby Wilmer Park were filled with July Fourth revelers awaiting the town's annual fireworks, witnesses said. Dozens of boats bobbed in the river where they had anchored for choice spots from which to watch the display.
Then the town fire siren sounded. Emergency workers and equipment rushed to the scene. Finally the helicopter, its searchlight probing, flew overhead and began circling the bridge.
"A friend of mine said that everybody on the bridge was absolutely silent when the helicopter went over," said Marie-Louise Watson, a Kent County resident who watched from a dock a half-mile away.
Two hours after the boy's disappearance, people were still standing on the river bank and looking into the water with flashlights in hopes of finding him, witnesses said.
A woman who would only identify herself as the kitchen manager of the Wharf Restaurant near the scene, said the townspeople were distraught, some of them crying.
"People are standing in the parking lot, just looking in the river," she said. "They're standing out there still watching the helicopter. I think they all feel drained."
"One little boy, a little blond-haired boy about 7, was standing at the Coke machine outside, and I asked him if he was OK," she added. "He said, 'If I could just swim, I'd jump in and save that little boy.' "
The woman said the parents and sister of the missing boy were waiting out the search in the lounge of the restaurant. The mother had been a waitress there a couple of years ago, she said.
"Her little girl is clinging to her, so we took her some chocolate ice cream and a Coke," the kitchen manager said.
Police had not released the identity of the boy last night.
Those taking part in the search included members of the Chestertown Rescue Squad, the Kent County and Queen Anne's County rescue squads, the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company, the Maryland State Police and the state Natural Resources Police.
Cpl. Jeff North of the state police Chestertown detachment said troopers were told the boy had not been wearing a life jacket.