The woman who died trying to save her son in the Merrimack River Thursday has been identified, as has the 6-year-old boy, who remains missing.
Boua DeChhat, 29 of Lowell, drowned after swimming into the rapid current of the river Thursday to try to save her 7-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, Massachusetts Sate Police said Saturday. The missing boy has been identified as Mas DeChhat.
The DeChhat family — Boua, her husband and their four children — were fishing from Deer Island in the river when, at about 7 p.m. Thursday, Mas entered the water, Newburyport fire and police officials have said. The mother and daughter went in after him, but were caught in a strong current.
The rescue operation shifted to one focused on recovery Friday. The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search later that day after searching 228 square miles for 69 hours; state and local police continued searching Saturday.
The initial fishing incident near Whittier Bridge
The DeChhat family 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, the now-missing boy, 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
All other members of the family are accounted for, except Mas, the 6-year-old boy, whom rescuers could not find. A massive search effort continued all day Friday. The Coast Guard suspended its search at 5 p.m. pending new information.
“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 had said they would resume 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.
The search was focused on the part of the river where Boua and her daughter were pulled from the water, according to state police. Divers were using sonar and being towed behind boats to look for Mas.
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."