Parmely “Pete” Daniels – United States Navy

From a contemporary press report:

For once, 11-year-old Michael Daniels had his father all to himself for the afternoon.

The two were headed to Riverbend Park, just above Great Falls, that afternoon of May 14, 1983. Parmely “Pete” Daniels, a 45-year-old Navy consultant and divorced father of three, had a borrowed canoe lashed to the top of his car.

It was a windless, sunny afternoon, Michael Daniels remembers. The Potomac River looked like glass as they paddled away from the Virginia shore.

“We had cold Cokes in the cooler,” says Daniels, now 29 and a computer leasing specialist in Herndon. His two older brothers were busy that day, so he had his dad for some precious one-on-one time. “We were going to stop on an island for a picnic lunch,” he recalls.

But shortly thereafter, tragedy struck: Not far downriver, their canoe hit unexpected turbulence, tumbled over a low-water dam and capsized. Daniels remembers his father's hand reaching out from under the swirling water, pushing him onto a small rock outcropping in mid-river.

Then his father disappeared.

“I looked around and yelled for my dad, but I couldn't see him. He was just gone.”

Soon, a helicopter hovered above and a rescue boat was en route. Michael stood shivering on the rocks while a knot of horrified onlookers yelled at him not to try to swim ashore.

The Potomac River, which courses nearly 400 miles from the mountains of West Virginia past Washington's gleaming landmarks and on to the Chesapeake Bay, appears peaceful and inviting over long stretches. But, as Michael Daniels's story shows, those seemingly calm waters are deceptive in places, masking subsurface currents that are strong and perilous.

Dozens of people drown in the Potomac each year. May 14, 1983, saw not one, but two lives lost: A few hours before Parmely Daniels's borrowed canoe overturned, a 39-year-old District man fishing in Georgetown slipped and fell into the river. Police pulled him out nine minutes later, but it was too late.

Every summer tells its own story. Fishermen, boaters, swimmers, restless teenagers–all have fallen victim. In July 1994, a 24-year-old newlywed was rock-hopping in the rapids at Great Falls while his wife videotaped him. Suddenly he disappeared from view. His body was recovered two days later.

This year, the Potomac has claimed at least 15 lives. In the popular area around Great Falls–from Aqueduct Dam to Little River Dam downriver–about 85 people have died since 1975, according to various safety records.

The numbers aren't absolute because several agencies participate in river  rescues — including the U.S. Park Police, Maryland Natural Resources Police, Fairfax County Swiftwater Recovery team and D.C. Harbor Police — and they typically keep track only of those they are involved in. For relatives and friends of a drowning victim, the wait to recover the body–if one is recovered at all–is excruciating.

Sometimes a week or two will go by with no luck. U.S. Park Police officer Tony DiToto, a ranger at Great Falls Park for 32 years, has become an ad hoc grief counselor for bereaved family members. “Some of them come out every year,” says DiToto, who keeps several thick binders with police reports and newspaper articles about drownings and other accidents at the park. “They want to sit and talk and see the spot” where their loved one disappeared.

It was DiToto who cared for Michael Daniels after he was plucked off the rocks by a rescue boat. DiToto called the boy's mother and ordered a pizza while they waited for her to arrive. Although the two didn't know it then, a lifelong friendship was forming.

Daniels regards DiToto as a surrogate father. “He called me the next day after my father drowned, and over the years he's spent a lot of time with me talking on the phone,” he says. DiToto says: “He's almost like a godson.”

Just a short drive from the heart of the city, Great Falls is a magnet for visitors. More than half a million visit the park each year. Many of them aren't expecting wilderness so close to an urban area and may not be physically or mentally prepared for what they find.

“People look at the river and think, ‘How could this possibly be dangerous?' And it's a hot day, the water looks calm,” says Jesse Reynolds, chief ranger at the park.

A dramatic series of waterfalls, some with drops of 20 feet, are easily viewed from the Maryland and Virginia shorelines. Hikers can follow the Potomac as it flows over the falls and into Mather Gorge, a narrow canyon that's a favorite of white-water kayakers.

Sunny summer days, when the park is filled with picnickers and families, can make Reynolds a bit tense. The greater the crowd the greater the likelihood that someone will wind up in the river. (Going in the water is grounds for arrest, but that's a moot point in many cases.)

“I'll say to Tony, ‘You know, it's crazy out there.' There are so many people doing dangerous things, you think, ‘Something bad could happen.' The potential is always here.”

When people drown at Great Falls, they die in places with names like Charlie's Hole, Cow Hoof Rock or the Spout. At the Spout, the Potomac crashes down 20 feet into a pool. From there, the water tumbles over a series of rocks — some of them submerged — then collides with the water below, making a wave that folds back on itself, like being tossed about in a washing machine. River people know this as a “hydraulic”; a person caught in one is usually pinned in place and doomed. There are many hydraulics at Great Falls.

Parmely Daniels and his son got caught in the one at the bottom of Aqueduct Dam. After they shoved off from the boat ramp at Riverbend Park, they paddled downriver, with the father steering from the back of canoe. It was hot, so he and Michael sat on their life jackets instead of wearing them.

In short order, they found themselves in the flat, glassy water that is the telltale sign of a nearby dam–where the water is being pulled so swiftly toward the dam that its surface appears calm, though underneath it is roiling.

Parmely Daniels tried to turn the canoe around at the dam, but it went over the six-foot drop, pitching father and son into the river. Michael Daniels remembers water crashing around him as he tried to escape the hydraulic. He saw his father struggling, too, then go under. The next thing he knew, his father reached out and grabbed him. The boy held on as the current pushed them both toward the falls.

Small rocky islands were all about. Somehow–he will never know how–his father, a retired Navy officer, pushed him onto one and screamed at him to stay there. Then his father disappeared.

“He was getting pulled under,” Daniels says. “I was crying for him. . . . And then he was gone.” Parmely Daniels's body was recovered six days later in the river near the Old Angler's Inn; he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. When Michael Daniels visits Great Falls these days–which he does two or three times a year–he goes as a pilgrim.

“It's more comforting than the cemetery,” he says. “It's a place for me to think and kind of release. . . . To this day, I can still go out there and I'll go through the whole day. I can see it. I can visualize it. “It took me a long time to accept what happened. I blamed myself because I pushed him to go–it was canoeing, and it was a day with him. Now I look at it as, my dad gave his life for me. It's a very special thing now.”

One recent afternoon, Daniels stopped by to see DiToto in the cluttered trailer that serves as the Park Police office at Great Falls. Daniels flipped through a scrapbook he put together for DiToto. In it are newspaper clippings of the accident and an account of that day that Daniels wrote while in high school. There are also photographs: of the dam, of the rocks from which he was rescued, of DiToto in his ranger's uniform, of the police reports.

The report about Michael Daniels refers to him as “person rescued.” The report about his father calls him “person missing.”

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