Body of 4-year-old drowning victim dragged up from Chester River

July 06, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHESTERTOWN -- Under thick, gray clouds that shed a tearful drizzle, searchers recovered yesterday the body of the 4-year-old boy who drowned in the Chester River on the Fourth of July.

Natural Resources Police identified the victim as Edward Anthony Fleming, the son of Edward and Shelly Fleming of Worton. His body was pulled up by a drag line about 150 yards south of the Chester River Bridge at 11:01 a.m.

The youngster fell overboard from a boat into the river shortly before 9 p.m. Wednesday as the town's annual July 4 fireworks display was starting.

After sitting on the bow of a 17-foot pleasure boat that was rafted alongside a family workboat, Tony apparently toppled over backward into the water. Police said family members never saw the child fall but they heard the splash and reacted almost immediately.

"A couple of adults dove in to try to save him but he had gone under," said Natural Resources Police Sgt. Tammy Broll. "They searched for 10or 15 minutes before calling shore for help on a CB radio."

The 4-year-old was not wearing a life preserver and did not know how to swim, according to police.

At that moment, the first pyrotechnic of the evening was launched from the Queen Anne's County side of the river, a test shell called a "star salute" that burst as a white, sparkling ball high in the sky. It turned out to be the last fireworks display of the evening.

When word of the possible drowning reached shore, town officials immediately canceled the fireworks. An estimated 2,000 people had gathered on the town's waterfront and 150 to 200 boats had anchored in the harbor for the annual event.

Rescue efforts were hampered by the darkness and the river's naturally muddy waters which reduced visibility for divers to "about zero," Sergeant Broll said.

Searchers said that the river was also running an unusually strong high tide Thursday night that ended up pushing the body hundreds of yards north of where the boy fell into the water.

Five divers, "three to four vessels" with drag lines and two helicopters were involved in the search, which was called off at 1:30 a.m. and resumed at 6 a.m., Sergeant Broll said.

The victim's family described the blond-haired youngster as an active and inquisitive boy who enjoyed playing with his toy trucks, hanging out with Putt Putt, his pet terrier, and being with his brother Eric, 9, and sister Vikki, 6.

"He was like any other boy," said James A. Bigelow Jr., his grandfather. "He talked about everything."

Across Chestertown, people were saddened by the holiday's traumatic ending. Before dusk, town officials held an old-fashioned ice cream social for Desert Storm veterans at the town park and the mood had been upbeat. But that changed quickly as news spread.

"We are feeling for the family," said Anne Daly, a lifelong resident who described the feeling as "very, very solemn."

"We're a very close-knit community and we feel a family's loss," she said.

The 30-minute fireworks display,which cost the town $8,100, was rescheduled for last night but some doubted they would attend.

"Everybody's feeling very sorrowful," said Philip M. Brooks Jr., a feed dealer. "Some people feel like we shouldn't even have the fireworks."

"This is the kind of town where if a funeral comes down the street, all the cars pull over out of respect. You don't see that in a big city."

Chestertown Mayor Elmer Horsey said that the drowning will cause town officials to "take a long, hard look at the fireworks situation for1992."

"We bought them ahead of time and we just couldn't send them back this year," Mayor Horsey said.

Police said that no charges would be filed in connection with the incident. State law does not require the occupants of boats to wear personal flotation devices, only that they be available. Other states require that children wear life jackets.

Funeral services for Tony Fleming are scheduled for 2 p.m. tomorrow at Willis Wells Funeral Home on High Street.

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