3 boys drown at park during family picnic

July 26, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

THURMONT -- A summer dinner outing at scenic Cunningham Falls State Park turned deadly for two friendly farm families Monday evening, despite prompt rescue efforts.

Three boys -- brothers 15 and 12 years old and a 15-year-old friend -- drowned after the youngest fell into the park's 44-acre lake about 7:15 p.m. Park rangers said the two 15-year-olds died after jumping into Hunting Creek Lake to save the youngest boy, who had slipped from a rock into a section of the lake that is 15 to 20 feet deep.

None of the three knew how to swim, family members said yesterday.

The fatalities were believed to be the worst drowning incident in Maryland since 1988, when three cousins drowned while picking blackberries next to a Prince George's County quarry, and the worst ever at the 5,000-acre state park off U.S. 15 in northern Frederick County.

The victims were Marvin Miller, 12, his brother, Lowell Miller, 15, and their friend, Brendle Horst, also 15. The Miller boys lived on a dairy farm in Smithsburg, near Hagerstown in Washington County. Brendle's family operates a dairy farm in Waynesboro, Pa., just north of the Maryland line.

All three boys were students at the Paradise Mennonite School in Hagerstown and were described by their families yesterday as having been longtime friends.

The drownings occurred about an hour after the two families arrived at the park for a picnic dinner in a popular wooded area with tables and charcoal grills. Four boys and two girls from the two families were exploring the water's edge when the 12-year-old slipped into the lake. He was walking on a rock that jutted into the lake and within 50 feet of the place where both families had spread out dinner. The children were out of sight of their family members because of trees.

Patty Manown, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources, described the area as being a couple hundred yards from the lake's man-made beach.

The other boys jumped in after Marvin but never resurfaced, investigators said yesterday. The boys were dressed, shoes and all, and had been playing around the park just before the incident, Ms. Manown said.

"It's horrible," said James Miller, father of Marvin and Lowell and who has two other children. "They were so close, and yet we couldn't get close enough to them. It's left us with a real hole."

He described his two lost sons as "the kind who would do anything for anybody."

Mr. Miller said his eldest son, Lyndon, 17, jumped in after the boys but had to be rescued by family members who extended a tree branch to him.

Lloyd Horst, Brendle's father, also jumped into the lake.

"They were too far out. We couldn't get to him," said Mr. Horst, who has eight other children. He said his family was visiting the park for the first time in several years.

A park ranger and several picnickers also jumped into the lake within minutes after the accident became known in the park.

"We had some who even had snorkels and masks on, and they couldn't see anything -- not even bubbles," said Ranger Tammy McCorkle, an assistant park manager who was at the scene Monday evening.

Rescue efforts came together fairly quickly, said Ranger Bill Miller, park manager. Three park rangers, including Ms. McCorkle, were within minutes of the site, he said. About 60 rescue people, including emergency personnel from Frederick County, showed up.

"I think the rescue came together as quickly as it could have," Mr. Miller said. "I don't know of anything we could have changed. It's just a real unfortunate incident."

Divers retrieved the 15-year-olds' bodies about 8:30 p.m. They were taken to Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown. The youngest boy's body was found about two hours later.

Yesterday, picnickers and fishing enthusiasts came and went near the site, seemingly unaware of what had occurred nearby less than 24 hours earlier. The area, a popular fishing and picnic spot, sits opposite the park's boat ramp. Swimming is prohibited.

"You don't think anything like this could happen," said Bernitta Willis, 15, a Frederick High School senior who was fishing near the rock where the boy slipped. "It's sad. It looks so innocent here, but you can never tell about water."

Diane Insley, a Hagerstown printing company employee, was enjoying a picnic yesterday with friends near the lake, a stone's throw from the site. "I had no idea it was so close. It's just so sad," she said.

Only two other drownings have occurred at the park, one in the late 1970s and the other in 1980 or 1981, Ms. McCorkle said. Both incidents involved capsized canoes. The man-made lake opened in 1976, park officials said.

"It looks so tranquil now," Ms. McCorkle said, surveying the area of the lake where the drowning occurred. "It's hard to imagine anything so awful happened here just [Monday] night."

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