Search of reservoir for drowning victim continues

Son who tried to save him helps guide police divers

July 10, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Bobby Harris returned to Prettyboy Reservoir yesterday, put on a life jacket and boarded a police boat. The night before, he had pulled an uncle and a cousin from the water in an unsuccessful attempt to save their lives. He was back to help divers look for his father's body.

He spent about 45 minutes with officers trying to pinpoint where he last saw his father. Harris, 23, said his father had looked into his eyes before slipping below the water's surface.

A day after a boating accident described as the worst in recent memory at any of Baltimore's three reservoirs, authorities identified the drowning victims as Walter William Gover and Allan Wayne Harris, both of whom lived nearby in the Freeland area of northern Baltimore County. The men died when their boat capsized.

Yesterday, a dozen divers searched from dawn until late afternoon, but they were not able to find the body of Robert Gene Harris Sr., 47.

The search was expected to resume this morning, this time with a helicopter and a team of dogs trained to sniff out the location of underwater bodies.

During yesterday's search, friends and relatives - as many as three dozen at times - gathered at the reservoir's boat launch. They inched forward for news about Robert Harris each time a boat returned to change divers.

Back on shore, Bobby Harris spent the afternoon waiting to see his father's body. And he gave an account of how he had tried to save his relatives:

It was about 7 p.m. Thursday when the four men set out in Gover's new 16-foot electric-motor boat. Gover, 41, was a distant cousin of the Harrises, police said. Allan Harris, 54, was the elder Robert Harris' uncle.

The men had a cooler of beer but apparently no life vests, according to Bobby Harris and Natural Resources police. Alcohol is prohibited at the reservoir.

"We just wanted to go for a real quick spin and then leave," Harris said.

About 45 minutes into the boat ride, Allan Harris leaned over to dip his head into the water to cool off, Harris said. In a split second, the boat overturned, and the four men were in the water. Two of them, Allan Harris and Gover, couldn't swim, Harris said.

Bobby Harris kicked off his Timberland boots and stripped off his pants. Both he and his father grabbed the cooler, which had floated to the surface even as the boat quickly sank.

Bobby Harris swam toward Gover, who, he said, appeared to be panicked and possibly having a heart attack. He said his father let go of the cooler and swam off to find his uncle.

"I have to try to save him. He's my uncle," Harris remembered his father saying.

But before he had reached the man, Robert Harris stopped swimming, made eye contact with his son and went under.

Bobby Harris pulled Gover near the tree-lined shore and swam out toward his father. He said he dived about 10 feet under and searched for a few minutes. Then he spotted his uncle's body and dragged it to shore.

"I couldn't save them," he said flatly. "I tried my best. I got two of them to shore."

Bobby Harris said that when he realized the two were dead he closed their eyelids and prayed.

Someone had heard cries for help and had summoned emergency workers about 8 p.m. Baltimore County firefighters and Natural Resources Police arrived a short time later.

Bobby Harris was taken to a Pennsylvania hospital. He said he was released about 2 a.m. His grandmother, Nancy Pepple, 65, said yesterday that when she picked him up she told him, "You're all that's left of your dad."

"He's a lot like his dad," she said at her home in Orrtanna, Pa., near Gettysburg. "I feel real close to him."

Both Bobby Harris, whom relatives call "Little Bobby," and Robert Harris, also known as "Bobby," have been living in a trailer on Pepple's 97-acre property. The father had moved in with his son a few months ago, and the two made a living by building barns.

The elder Harris also has a daughter, Amy, who has three children, Pepple said.

Allan Harris and Gover worked together for a company that moved mobile homes, said Gover's brother-in-law, Steve Blankenship. People called Allan Harris "Cookie," and Walter Gover "Walt" or "Wally."

Natural Resources police, who are leading the recovery effort and investigation, and Baltimore County police sent divers to Prettyboy. They launched boats from an area near Spooks Hill and Kidds Schoolhouse roads and rotated pairs of divers about every 45 minutes.

"These recovery operations are not very glitzy or glamorous," said Lt. Wayne Jones of the Natural Resources Police. "They are tedious, long, tiring and they can be boring. But it's something that has to be done. And the guys like to bring closure to something like this for the families."

Sgt. Chris Wrzosek, leader of the Baltimore County Police Underwater Recovery Unit, said divers inch along near the bottom of the reservoir following a 100-foot-by-100-foot grid outlined by buoys and anchors. They move the grid when they've completed it.

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