AMESBURY — In the sunshine, the surface of the Merrimack River often seems to sparkle. As the weather warms, its waters look like the perfect place to beat the heat. But summer after summer, that temptation has turned into tragedy.
On June 9, Boua DeChhat, 30, plunged from Deer Island — in the middle of the Merrimack in Amesbury — to rescue her 6-year-old son, Mas, who had slipped into the water while the family was fishing. But both mother and son were caught in the current and drowned.
It was not an isolated incident. Between 2010 and 2022, news media reported 31 drownings and 21 near-drownings in the Merrimack, which runs along the border between New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The vast majority of the incidents involved individuals who were swimming or boating; all but four were accidental.
The rash of deaths has raised questions among affected families and communities about what, if anything, could be done to curtail the loss of life along the river.
Derek Kelleher,a battalion chief with the Concord, N.H., Fire Department, said that the majority of drownings are preventable, and every effort to prevent them is important — though they might never be enough.
“I think everything helps,” Kelleher said “But realistically, I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to stop it. It’s tragic. We’ve just got to keep trying.”
‘Never underestimate the river’
The Merrimack River flows for 115 miles through central and southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts, where it empties into the Atlantic. Native Americans who first inhabited the region called it Merruasquamack — or “swift water place.”
Boatswain’s Mate First Class Joseph Habel, an officer in the Coast Guard at Station Merrimack River in Newburyport, said that its currents are too strong for swimmers. They range from 3 to 4 knots, or nearly 5 miles per hour, he said — a speed that’s “very dangerous and very difficult for a strong swimmer, let alone a non-swimmer.”
But that danger is disguised beneath the surface, which often appears calm.
Conditions on the Merrimack are constantly changing. Depths are difficult to determine, and the riverbed often drops without warning. Underwater entrapments and obstructions — like rocks and branches — can snag swimmers. At the start of the summer, cold water can cause hypothermia.
As a result, individuals who are comfortable swimming in pools or ponds should not assume that they will feel comfortable swimming in rivers such as the Merrimack.
More than half of drownings among those 15 and older occur in open water, which includes rivers, lakes, and oceans, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Never underestimate the river,” Habel said.
Adam Cheney, a lieutenant with the N.H. Fish and Game Department, thinks that the issue is not with the Merrimack, but the people who patronize the river. He said his team recovers an average of two bodies from the river per year.
“People have to take responsibility for themselves,” Cheney said. “If they know they can’t swim, they shouldn’t be swimming in a river over their head. It’s just that simple.”
‘Enough is enough’
Meghan McGonagle,19, whose boyfriend drowned in the Merrimack just north of Concord in 2020, isn’t satisfied with that answer.
On that afternoon in August, Zach Lacy, 15, went to the river with friends to celebrate a birthday. Somehow, while the teens were tubing, Zach went under — and never resurfaced.
At first, McGonagle couldn’t believe what had happened.
“I remember driving to the hospital and thinking, ‘This isn’t happening. It’s the wrong kid,’” she said.
But it was Zach — the boy who was friends with everybody at school, who loved football and lacrosse, who wore the same battered pair of red sneakers everywhere he went.
There was no clear cause for the tragedy, which was the fourth death on the river in four months.
“Zach knows — knew how to swim,” said his twin, Zoe Lacy, 17, correcting herself; she still sometimes refers to him in the present tense.
In fact, Zach was a strong swimmer. The family has a pool, and Zach worked at the nearby Contoocook River Canoe Company.
After his death, McGonagle started a petition to prevent others from losing their lives on the Merrimack.
“The bend between the Boscawen Boat Launch and the Hannah Dustin Memorial is one of the deadliest river bends on the Merrimack,” she wrote, referring to the area where Zach drowned. “Sign this petition to get that bend of the river shut down or regulated to swimmers, tubers, and others.”
The petition, addressed to New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, also proposed that the state enforce laws on life jackets, use buoys, and create a “constant” patrol of the area. The petition garnered over 8,500 signatures, with dozens of signatories commenting on the frequency of drownings in the area.
“It should not take a certain number of kids [or] adults dying to do something about this part of the river. Enough is enough! Gut-wrenching heartbreak,” wrote Melonie Fanny, of Concord, N.H.
Almost two years later, McGonagle no longer advocates for the state to close parts of the Merrimack, acknowledging it’s not reasonable. But she still wants “mile markers” to be placed along the river so it’s easier to communicate the specific spot where rescuers need to respond. McGonagle also wants the state to require that individuals wear life jackets in the river — or at least have them nearby.
“I can’t require a small child on the bank of the river to wear a life jacket,” said Habel, of the Coast Guard. “But I have two kids and I would not let my kids near the river without life jackets.”
McGonagle has been frustrated by the lack of concrete change.
“Every time someone drowns on the river, they say, ‘There was an accident on the river,’” she said. “You learn from your accidents. You learn from your mistakes. But I feel like nothing changes.”
A few attempts at prevention
One exception has been the town of Canterbury, N.H., which in 2020 was the site of three drownings, including Zach, and three near-drownings.
Canterbury Fire Chief Michael Gamache said erosion near the town’s beaches created a sudden drop in the riverbed of about 30 feet — “like a cliff,” he said.
After the incidents in 2020, the town installed signs that warn of “strong current and steep dropoff” and contain information — including coordinates for GPS — to help dispatchers direct rescuers. Each beach is now also equipped with rescue ropes and rings, Gamache said.
At the state level, the N.H. Department of Safety and State Police Marine Patrol have worked with localities to develop similar safety signage, according to Marine Patrol Lieutenant Crystal McLain. Officials are also looking to install life jacket loaner stations at some sites on the river, she said.
In Massachusetts, communities such as Amesbury have started to consider changes. The city’s mayor, Kassandra Grove, is working “to devise and implement additional safety measures and messaging” at river sites, including Deer Island, said her chief of staff.
As for the state, Ilyse Wolberg, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, noted that there are no “designated swimming areas” along the Merrimack.
‘What would’ve happened?’
As a twin, Zoe Lacy still finds it strange to move through milestones without Zach.
As a senior at Merrimack Valley High School, she worked with her dad to develop a “river safety box.” It includes an inflatable life jacket; a rope and a ring to throw to someone struggling in the water; heat warmers and foil blankets to reheat people after rescues; and an airhorn and a whistle to communicate with first responders.
Now, Lacy plans to hang the box by the Hannah Duston Memorial in Boscawen, N.H., close to where her brother drowned.
“I liked making the box,” she said. “But it makes me upset that there wasn’t something like this before. What would’ve happened?”