Patrol aims to calm the waters Police expect hectic July Fourth weekend around Middle River

July 03, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

A wistful expression crosses Chris Wrzosek's face as he pilots a boat across Middle River toward Galloway Creek. It's just before summer's official midpoint -- July Fourth -- and the river is a peaceful, glittering ribbon with only a single sail notching a cloudless blue sky.

Wrzosek knows it won't be this way tomorrow, when holiday boaters will turn the river into a sea of bows and sterns.

"Two hours before the fireworks, you'll be able to walk from one side of the river to the other -- there'll be five or six thousand boats,'' says Wrzosek. "All of this, all of the main stem of the river will be a parking lot."

He is one of the eight Baltimore County police officers assigned to marine patrol for the Fourth -- and this year is more complicated than most.

Because the Fourth falls on a weekend, all the county's celebrations -- nine parades, six sets of fireworks -- are scheduled the same day, taxing law enforcement resources on land and sea. Unlike previous years, the U.S. Coast Guard will not be patrolling Middle River, so county fire and police personnel and a handful of officers from the state's Department of Natural Resources must maintain order among thousands of celebrants.

Moreover, there have been changes in what was already a complex set of regulations about speed limits on Middle River.

"It's very complicated," said Wrzosek. He and other Baltimore County marine officers carry a chart marked with speed limits as they patrol, he says. "Every officer is supplied with a copy of the map in case some irate citizen decides to pull out the [marker] buoys."

Under the regulations passed by DNR in mid-May, boaters may not exceed 6 knots in Galloway and Sue creeks on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays -- a speed limit well below the overall 25 knots at night, 35 knots in effect during the day along the main part of the river.

"We've tried to get the word out," Wrzosek said. The Memorial Day holiday brought only light boating traffic because the weather was chilly, he said. Tomorrow will be the first big holiday under the new speed limits.

But police say speed is not likely to be the biggest problem along Middle River. Instead, drinking and large crowds will keep police officers busier as weekend boaters fill the river, massing to watch fireworks launched from a midriver barge. Weaving in and out of the expected 6,000 boats will be 60 or 70 personal watercraft, Wrzosek said.

"They'll try to slalom around the anchored boats -- it's a recipe for disaster," he said.

The police marine unit can stop and search any boat on the water, he said. Last year, marine officers arrested 13 people during the entire summer, he said, and made only one arrest on July 4, albeit a memorable one.

The boater tried to outrun police, DNR officers and the Coast Guard by speeding up the river almost to Harford County. (He was apprehended when a police helicopter hovered over him, illuminating him on deck.)

"He just put his hands up and gave up," recalled Capt. Don R. Roby, one of the officers involved in the chase.

County police officers patrol the river from April through September, and most often write citations for safety violations -- not enough life preservers or lights or equipment.

"Our biggest thing is, we want people to be safe. If you've got kids on board, put a personal flotation device on them," Wrzosek said.

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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