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Surviving Harmar boater thought of kids while battling currents

| Monday, April 12, 2010

Gary Watson spent the winter readying his motorized, Fiberglas fishing boat for spring outings with his son, Cale Watson, and the pair's good friend, Brian Abercrombie.

"Dad redid the whole thing, new carpeting, wiring — it was his winter project," daughter Stacey Valenta of Arona said Sunday. "I know the three of them were planning to take the boat to a new place over the weekend."

That site — the C.W. Bill Young Lock and Dam on the Allegheny River in Harmar — became the scene of a tragedy Saturday when the group's 16-foot vessel capsized at about 2:30 p.m.

Watson, 59, of North Huntingdon and Abercrombie, 26, of California, Pa., clung briefly to the overturned boat but were pulled under by the churning 46-degree waters.

Minutes later, officials say, they were dead.

The cause of death for both was accidental drowning, according to autopsies conducted yesterday in the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office. None of the boaters was wearing a life jacket, witnesses said.

Cale Watson, 30, also of North Huntingdon, survived by swimming through the powerful currents to shore. He suffered a head injury and was taken to UPMC St. Margaret near Aspinwall. He was later released and was resting with family yesterday.

"Cale told me he wanted to see his kids; the water kept pulling him down, but that's why he kept swimming," a tearful Valenta said.

Cale Watson has two sons, Jacob, 5, and Benny, 3.

"My father was the best man I ever knew and the best man I ever will know," Valenta said.

Cale Watson was a groomsman at Abercrombie's wedding in May 2008.

"It was going to be their two-year anniversary," said Abercrombie's sister, Kristie Abercrombie Hilty, also of California. "My brother was kind but shy, quiet but very good-hearted."

Buoys that normally indicate if the area below the dam is too risky for boating had been removed for winter and have not been reinstalled.

"We make sure the buoys are in place at the start of the recreational boating season Memorial Day weekend," said David Sneberger, chief of the lock and dams branch of the Army Corps of Engineers — Pittsburgh District. "We've had numerous cases of high water washing the buoys away if we put them in before that."

Lock operators who spot boaters too close to the dam normally sound a horn in short, continuous blasts as an emergency signal to stay downstream, Sneberger said.

Officials working Saturday were watching the trio's boat but had to momentarily turn their attention to a boat passing through the lock, Sneberger said.

"The boat was on the dam's end opposite of the lock, which is about 1,000 to 1,200 feet away," Sneberger said. "By the time (operators) looked again, there were (emergency) vehicles with flashing lights (on the bank)."

Better safeguarding of areas near dams is likely to be a topic of discussion when Corps representatives meet at the Recreational River Users Summit later this spring.

"This breaks everybody's heart, because we really try to make sure people are safe," Sneberger said.

The Fish & Boat Commission is investigating the accident. Officials there could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Funeral arrangements for Watson are being handled by the Shirley-Kukich Funeral Home in North Huntingdon. Funeral arrangements for Abercrombie are being handled by the Mariscotti Funeral Home in California.

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