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Hope dims as officials suspend search for 6-year-old boy missing in Merrimack River

Family members comforted one another at the scene in Amesbury on Friday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

AMESBURY — A grieving family’s hopes grew dimmer late Friday afternoon as the US Coast Guard and Massachusetts State Police suspended their search for a 6-year-old boy who fell into the Merrimack River in Amesbury as a family fishing trip turned tragic.

Earlier in the day, efforts to locate the boy — whose mother died after attempting to pull him from the water Thursday evening — were reclassified from rescue to recovery, indicating that authorities no longer believed there was a chance he was alive.

The child’s father and more than a dozen family and friends spent Friday at the rescue site, waiting on the banks of Deer Island for news that never came.

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Captain Kailie Benson, commander of Coast Guard Sector Boston, said in a statement just after 5 p.m. that she was suspending the search, citing “the extensive search efforts by the Coast Guard and the numerous state and local agencies, along with on scene conditions.”

Massachusetts State Police suspended search efforts at about 6:45 p.m. after approximately 10 hours, according to a statement from spokesman David Procopio. Their search will resume Saturday.

The tragic events began shortly after 7 p.m. Thursday, when the parents — the father, 31, and the mother, 29 — and their four children were fishing on Deer Island between Amesbury and Newburyport.

Officials have said the family is from Lowell but have not released their names.

The father had returned to the family car to retrieve some gear, when the couple’s 6-year-old son reached for something in the water and fell into the river, where he was pushed by the swift current, Procopio said in an earlier statement.

“The mother and daughter entered the water to save the boy and were also caught in the current,” Procopio said. “By this time the father . . . returned to the water’s edge, saw his daughter and wife in the water, and entered the water and tried to reach them but could not and quickly got in trouble himself in the water.”

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The father and two children were recovered by Amesbury police and treated at the Seabrook Emergency Room in New Hampshire for conditions including hypothermia and exposure, according to local police and the Coast Guard.

The mother and her 7-year-old daughter were caught in the current and carried almost a quarter-mile before they were spotted by a fishing vessel near Whittier Bridge.

The daughter was able to climb aboard the boat, but her mother was unresponsive, and rescuers performed CPR at the scene. Both were taken to Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport, where the daughter received treatment, and the mother was declared dead, officials said.

State Police and Newburyport Fire boats searched for the body of a 6-year-old boy on the Merrimack River on Friday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A massive search for the missing 6-year-old boy was conducted by air and in the river until 11:30 p.m. Thursday and resumed early Friday. The Coast Guard and State Police were assisted by scores of local police and fire departments in the Merrimack Valley, including those of Amesbury, Newburyport, Salisbury, and Haverhill.

About 20 divers from the Boston police Dive Team and the Massachusetts State Police Dive Team searched the river with equipment that included sonar imaging, officials said. More than a dozen boats were also involved in the effort.

Crews searched 228 square miles, according to the Coast Guard.

“It is always a difficult decision to suspend a search and rescue case, and even more painful when children are involved,” Benson said. “Our prayers are with the boy and mother’s family and friends during this time.”

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Late in the afternoon, as divers searched the waters below, a woman affixed a pair of white roses to the side of the bridge overlooking Deer Island. After she placed the roses, the woman — who declined to share her name — knelt on the bridge and crossed herself.

“I’m a mom, and I think we all grieve,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what political party we are. It’s just being human.”

Dawn Pantano — the co-owner of Changing Tides Cafe and Donut Shop in nearby Newburyport — stopped by the site late on Friday with three boxes of doughnuts for rescuers. Pantano said she and her staff hoped to show them support from the community.

Throughout the day, locals driving across Chain Bridge, the area where officials staged a command post, leaned out of car windows to ask, “Any luck? Did they find him yet?”

Nancy Boyd Webb, a resident of Amesbury who lives on the edge of the river near the search site, said the river’s current is very strong.

“You can tell by the amount of wind in the trees how much current there’s gonna be, but it goes back and forth twice a day, just like the ocean,” Webb said. “It’s incredible. It’s pretty to look at, but you don’t want to be stuck in it.”

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“I just feel so badly,” she added.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Camille Caldera was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.