A local kayaker and father found the body of Mas DeChhat, the 6-year-old who drowned while on a family fishing trip at Deer Island, in the Merrimack River on Sunday.
Mas' body was found by Darin Kelsey near Newburyport's Pipers Quarry, authorities said Sunday. Kelsey lives along the river and decided to go out – like many good Samaritans over the weekend – to try to help first responders locate the boy.
"I was out for a 30-minute kayak and I still can't believe that I was the one that found him," Kelsey said. “I went out and looked along the shores and looked under docks and I was on my way back in and saw something floating kind of in my path. I was hoping it was a stick or a log, and as I got closer I realized it was the boy. He kind of floated right by me.”
He found the boy’s body just over half a mile downstream from Deer Island, where his family had been fishing Thursday night when he fell in. As a dad of four children himself, Kelsey said it was important to him to help – but he couldn’t believe he found him in just over a half hour of searching.
"I was just in shock to see that little boy and, you know, I have little kids and that image is just going to haunt me," Kelsey said. "I know the father was pleading with people to help him found his boy, just so he could have closure and the fact that I could help them -- that's what's going to carry me through."
Mas first entered the river about 7 p.m. Thursday during a family fishing trip on Deer Island. His mother, Boua DeChhat, and 7-year-old sister got into the water to try and save him, but they were carried away by the current, and Boua, 29, died before the pair could be pulled out, authorities have said. The girl survived.
On Deer Island, a makeshift memorial for the DeChhat family had sprung up by Sunday. People were leaving flowers and lighting candles.
Grief counselors were expected to be at Mas' elementary school in Lowell to help his classmates and teachers deal with the pain and sadness of his sudden loss.
"As a parent, I don't know, it's really heartbreaking, I couldn't even imagine, so my heart is with his family during this difficult time," said Chenda Oum, whose son was a friend of Mas' in kindergarten at Murkland Elementary School.
Oum said her son "had a breakdown last night ... I cried with him and just held him and loved him, you know, and told him that it's okay, he's in a better place now."
The initial fishing incident near Whittier Bridge
The six members of the DeChhat family, from Lowell, at the center of the tragic accident had been fishing and swimming at Deer Island, a recreational area in the Merrimack River between Amesbury and Newburyport and near the Whittier Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 over the river, officials said. Police initially said they were involved in a boating accident but that turned out to be untrue.
The family's father, Boua's 31-year-old husband, went to their car around 7 p.m. to get something, which is when Mas fell into the water while reaching for something in it and was swept away by the current, officials said.
Boua, who was not known to swim, and her 7-year-old daughter entered the river to help save him but were caught in the strong current as well, according to Massachusetts State Police. The father, returning from the car, saw Boua and daughter in the water and jumped in after them, but couldn't reach them and had trouble as well; he was able to get back to shore.
The current carried Boua and her daughter inland, under the Whittier Bridge, where a person in a boat saw them struggling and was able to pull them out, officials said. But the woman had trouble hoisting herself into the boat and went under the water.
Boua and her mother were both taken to Anna Jacques Hospital in Newburyport; the girl was treated and released but Boua, whom rescuers found unresponsive and not breathing, was pronounced dead.
The search for the missing boy
The search had focused on the part of the river where Boua and her daughter were pulled from the water, according to state police. That turned out not to be where Mas' body was found; Pipers Quarry, where Mas' body was found, is east of Deer Island, while his mother and sister were west of the island.
Deer Island is about five miles from the mouth of the Merrimack River.
The massive effort to find Mas, begun Thursday night, continued all day Friday, even after the focus of the mission shifted to recovering his body. The Coast Guard suspended its search in the afternoon.
“It is always a difficult decision to suspend a search and rescue case, and even more painful when children are involved,” said Capt. Kailie Benson, Coast Guard Sector Boston commander. “Considering the extensive search efforts by the Coast Guard and the numerous state and local agencies, along with on scene conditions, I have made the decision to suspend the search for the missing 6-year-old boy."
"Our prayers are with the boy and mother’s family and friends during this time,” Benson added.
Massachusetts State Police resumed their search Saturday after spending 10 hours looking for the boy on Friday.
The search included the Coast Guard, harbormasters, state police, local police and fire departments from around the region and state environmental police. The response included 10 Massachusetts State Police divers, and helicopters were seen searching the area.
Newburyport Fire Chief Christopher LeClaire had said the search efforts would continue until about noon Friday before officials reevaluate them and decide whether to switch from a rescue to a recovery.
"We're continuing to search," he said Friday morning. "As time goes by, the chances of recovery diminish. We believe we'll be in recovery mode shortly."
He said the strong current in the river presented challenges in the search effort.
LeClaire on Thursday night described the conditions on Deer Island at the time Mas went missing and Boua and her daughter went into the water after him as typical, noting the river's quick pace and rocky ledge.
"It is quite heavily used this time of year. People are known to fish along the edge along Deer Island," he said.
Countless first responder vehicles could be seen parked along a bridge Thursday night, while several boats were in the water, and state police and Coast Guard helicopters were flying overhead.
NBC10 Boston talked with one woman who lives nearby and she said her husband also got into his kayak Thursday evening to help look for the child after he realized what was going on.
"My husband was out here with the dog, and I was like, what's taking so long? And then all of a sudden he's screaming at me, and he's talking about a woman and CPR," said Sue Bajko. "I came out and two fishermen came on our dock here in their boat and they pulled the woman and her daughter out of the boat and did CPR."
Len Johnson, a life-long Amesbury resident who lives along the river said, "Heaven help you if you do fall in the river, the current just can take you away in a flash."