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Search to resume for man presumed drowned in Allegheny River

| Monday, July 14, 2014, 12:02 p.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Volunteer rescue personnel from around Western Pennsylvania hold a briefing on the shore of the Allegheny River in South Buffalo on Monday, July 14, 2014, before beginning their search for the body of 40-year-old Penn Hills man who was thrown from a personal watercraft on Sunday.

The search for a Penn Hills man presumed to have drowned in the Allegheny River is expected to resume Tuesday afternoon.

Authorities said Thomas Duane Uzmack has been missing since about 4 p.m. Sunday, when his personal watercraft overturned and he disappeared underwater.

Formerly of Springdale, Uzmack was celebrating his 40th birthday.

He was riding with a 12-year-old male relative who was pulled from the river by family members on a nearby pontoon boat.

South Buffalo fire Chief Randy Brozenick said both riders were wearing life vests, although he said Uzmack's was unfastened. The vest was later recovered near where the incident occurred, about a mile upriver from Murphy's Island near Freeport.

Brozenick said the last of the search party left an area near where Uzmack was last seen in South Buffalo about 8:45 Monday night.

The search was to resume at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

“We're just going to have the boats run up and down the river,” Brozenick said. “We're not going to commit any more divers.

“We think we've done everything we can as far as diving.”

Crews from three counties searched the river for about four hours on Sunday before darkness fell.

Most of the search focused on an area about 300 yards downriver from the incident, where rescuers got sonar hits and search dogs were alerted to human scent.

The search resumed about 10 a.m. Monday when divers began systematically scouring the same area. The effort involved 15 divers from three communities who rotated in teams of three to five.

Divers focused for about 45 minutes on a portion of the targeted area near the Gilpin riverbank.

Two search dogs separately detected a scent, but found nothing. Brozenick said the river's depth in that area fluctuates between about 20 and 50 feet.

“There are a lot of disparities on the river floor,” he said. “The guys were almost climbing up walls and then feeling their way back down again where there was dredging. The visibility cleared up a little bit from (Sunday), when they could barely see their gauges, but not a lot. It's tough to see anything.”

But Brozenick indicated that the most effective means of continuing a river recovery 48 hours after the incident is by searching a wider area by boat.

Brozenick said the river's speed on Sunday measured at about 5 mph, which means the man's body could have been farther downriver than first anticipated.

It was unknown on Monday what caused Uzmack to flip the watercraft. By his family's account, Brozenick said, the watercraft was in working order and Uzmack was a solid swimmer.

“His family has a camp with a dock downriver on the Gilpin side,” he said. “A lot of his family was on the boat in the river and saw him go under. The river has a stronger undertow than people think.”

Dan Kinnard, 65, has lived along the Allegheny River in South Buffalo since 1998. Sunday's incident is the second major event that's taken place on the river in front of his River Road home in the past 20 years, he said.

“It's a very unfortunate situation and I hope for the best,” he said, “but I'm not surprised at all. This river can be very unforgiving. That slight lack of judgement can be all it takes.”

Past river citations

In 2009, the state Fish and Boat Commission filed three citations against Uzmack for an Aug. 15 incident in Gilpin. Two citations of violating the rules/regulating protecting health/safety and one citation for negligent operation of a watercraft.

The records don't specify whether the citation was related to the use of a life vest.

Court documents indicate that he pleaded guilty to all three in October 2009 and he was fined.

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Staff writers Chuck Biedka, Liz Hayes and Assistant City Editor Dave Williams contributed to this report.

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