Great Miami River body search: High water, rushing currents after rains added challenges

The search this week for a reported body floating down the Great Miami River created a danger for crews entering the water, something that challenges crews along the river, especially with bloated and speeding water levels. .

Crews from Fairfield Twp., and the cities of Hamilton, Fairfield and Monroe searched for the body reportedly seen by a fisherman on the river beginning on Sunday. Despite several hours of work on Sunday and Monday, the body of what was described in the 911 call as an “older person” was never seen.

“It definitely increases the danger involved in that,” said Fairfield Twp. Fire Chief Timothy Thomas of the river affected by heavy rains.

“Obviously we take water rescues very seriously because we don’t control what goes on the river, so we have to react to whatever happens.”

That’s why the township notified other departments “to put more people and more equipment out there to be safer,” and to be able to cover the area quickly and safely, he said. All of the township’s staff are trained on using the boat, “but as we all know, bad things happen so we have to take extra care.”

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Many fire departments along the river and the Butler County Regional Water Rescue Team have firefighters complete water-rescue training, and specialized training in how to deal with high and fast-moving water, such as the case with the Great Miami River on Sunday and Monday. Departments don’t often make river-water rescue attempts more than a few times a year, officials said.

“It puts your crews at risk, dealing with the current that’s moving fast,” said Middletown firefighter Lt. Jamie Verdin, who works on training for the Middletown Division of Fire. “It’s a judgment call if you put guys on the river, and if it’s a body recovery or if it’s an actual rescue.”

In Hamilton, the water level was just over 66 feet, which is significantly above normal due to the near-record amounts of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Two weeks ago, when there were normal rain levels, the water was slightly above normal at 63.9 feet. The higher the river water, the faster it moves.

Water rescue crews searched along the river from near Rentschler Forest MetroPark and south into Hamilton. Fairfield Twp. Assistant Fire Chief Matt Schumann said the fisherman saw something like a person face-down floating down the Great Miami River near the Wayne-Madison bridge.

“We put boats in the water down by the High Street bridge, and we searched from the low-level dam all the way up to where we were (at Rentschler Forest) and we didn’t find anything,” Schumann said of Sunday’s search efforts.

Crews went out Monday morning as the river had dropped about a foot to 18 inches, “and we were hoping if someone was in there we would be able to find them,” he said.

No one was found, Schumann said.

There was just one caller to 911, a man fishing from his backyard on Canal Road. He called emergency dispatchers at 1:48 p.m. Sunday. According to the call, the man said he “was in the backyard fishing, and I know the river’s up … uh, it looked to be like a body floating down river. Older person, purple sweater, gray hair. Not 100 percent sure, but that’s what it looked like.”

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Hamilton Fire Chief Mark Mercer said it’s “very risky” to get out on the river with high water levels.

“The risk is because it’s something that doesn’t happen frequently,” Mercer said. “Even though house fires are dangerous, that’s something we handle pretty commonly. The water being, a little bit different, that’s specialized training and it’s something that we don’t do as often.”

Several firefighters around the county have been trained in Swiftwater Rescue, a 40-hour class with annual refresher trainings, and departments train on the water about a handful of times a year.

The biggest issue for crews conducting a rescue or recovery is what’s not seen, said Lt. Randy Lambert of the Butler County Regional Water Rescue Team.

“There are things that would be normally visible from the banks that now poses a threat to the people we have in the water or equipment we have in the water,” he said. “It could be something sharp that could cut the rescuer very easily, or damage the equipment.”

Officials said if a body is floating on top of the river, it would have moved quickly on a day like Sunday where the river was several feet above normal. Sometimes a body could be caught by natural strainers, which typically are trees during high river stages, but nothing was seen between the Wayne-Madison bridge near Rentschler Forest and the low-level dam in Hamilton, they said.

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