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Crews searching for missing man in Allegheny River near O'Hara

| Friday, July 4, 2014, 5:59 p.m.
Nick Mitrakos | For the Valley News Dispatch
Emergency officials search for the body of a 74-year-old man who was swept away by the Allegheny River current at the Fox Chapel Yacht Club in O'Hara while he was placing markers in shallow water on Friday, July 4, 2014. Officials called off the search at dusk; they will continue in the morning.

Rescue crews searched the Allegheny River for hours on Friday for an elderly man they fear drowned after he was swept underwater at the Fox Chapel Yacht Club.

Witnesses told police the 74-year-old man was wading in chest-deep water near his docked houseboat, when he apparently lost his footing and was carried downstream by the swift current. He was not believed to have been wearing a life jacket.

Rescuers were called to the O'Hara marina about 3:50 p.m. and began searching by boat and from the shore. They focused on an area about 300 yards downstream of the marina, where the man was last seen.

About three hours after the man disappeared, police said the search switched to a recovery effort, instead of a rescue.

Blawnox fire Chief George McBriar said his company's river rescue unit called off the search at dusk. He said they planned to resume searching about 9 a.m. Saturday.

McBriar said rescuers used Aonar devices and brought in search dogs that can track scents through water. They were assisted by Allegheny County's river rescue team.

Officials said the man's wife was taken to an undisclosed hospital for evaluation.

Several boaters said the river around the yacht club was less congested than usual because high, fast, debris-filled water kept many boats docked.

“Usually this place would be like the Los Angeles freeway on the Fourth of July,” said Tim Sweeney of Blawnox.

Sweeney said he'd been kayaking on the river's calmer back channel near Harmar on Friday morning but could barely paddle hard enough against the current to row upstream.

“It's unreal how fast the river is running today,” Sweeney said.

The National Weather Service reported the river at the C.W. Bill Young Lock and Dam between Harmar and Plum was flowing at about 1.3 miles per hour on Friday morning. The average speed on the Allegheny River could not immediately be determined.

The weather service on June 25 warned recreational boaters to avoid the Allegheny River because of its high, fast flow and large amounts of debris in the water. But that advisory ended last weekend.

At the yacht club, boats were decorated for the holiday while many people on the docks watched the rescue boats circle. Rescuers were preventing boats and other watercraft from using the river in the search area, which is about two miles upstream of the Highland Park Bridge and Lock and Dam 2 near Sharpsburg.

Bystanders said before the man went missing, he was placing stakes with reflective markers into the shallows between the rear of his boat and the Squaw Run tributary at the downstream end of the yacht club.

They said he installed the markers every year to warn boaters of the river's depth near the shore.

“It's a shame — he was doing something nice for fellow boaters when this happened,” Sweeney said.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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