Rescue workers ended a second day of searching for a 12-year-old boy who was swept away in the rain-swollen and fast-moving Mud Brook creek in Akron’s Merriman Valley.
Rescuers from Akron and surrounding agencies focused their efforts between two bridges along a 1,000 foot swath of the creek, whose sweeping currents maintained a brisk pace all Friday. Crews spent the majority of the day searching by boat, by helicopter and foot. The current made diving too perilous.
“We had no luck in finding the young man, but we’re going to continue with walking searches,” Akron Fire District Chief Anthony Law said late Friday afternoon. “And we’re going to continue searching each day until it gets dark. We’ve searched all the areas we felt he may be with no success.”
The rescue centers on finding Nic Shaffer, a Woodridge Intermediate School student, who ended up in the creek Friday afternoon.
Nic, who authorities say is autistic, was with friends and family near the creek’s edge inside the Timber Top apartment complex.
Various accounts have been offered as to how Nic went into the water and became caught in the rushing current. A fire official said Friday afternoon that the boy could have accidently slipped or jumped into the water while playing with friends near the creek that runs behind the Timber Top complex.
“From what we understand, the water was all the way up to the bank, the kids were playing in it with their feet or whatever and I guess somehow he got caught in the current,” Law said. “I’m not sure if he jumped in or not. So far, all we know is the current got him.”
Three people jumped into the water in an attempt to rescue him but were unsuccessful as the current carried the child away.
The brook runs along Sycamore Lane before flowing under Akron-Peninsula Road to the north of Portage Trail. The water then merges with the Cuyahoga River about a half-mile from where the boy was last seen.
Helicopters hummed over the creek Friday morning and Law said searches along the waterway would continue throughout the day and end about 6. The local American Red Cross was also at the scene.
The water current is faster than it was two days ago, when the area was saturated with heavy rain. The water was murky and moving at about six knots.
“After we had the heavy rain, everything dumps into it, so it’s really fast right now,” Law said.
The water level is between 3 and 5 feet in spots. During drier periods, the creek has less than a foot of water, neighbors said. The water levels are expected to recede each day, but on Friday the depth, current and mud made the search difficult.
“We had zero visibility,” Fire Capt. Mark Oziomek. “The river is fast. It’s very powerful. If you get in it, bad things can happen.”
One witness on Thursday said he heard the boy’s sister yelling for help and saying Nic is autistic.
Laurie Cramer, director of the Autism Society Greater Akron, said children with autism can be attracted to water. It may be the sensory components of running water or the feeling of being under water in a pool. Other times, it could be that like other children, they want to cool off by going swimming.
For parents, however, children with autism can pose special challenges because they may not understand the dangers of water due to cognitive impairments. Add other aspects of what can be a part of having an Autism Spectrum Disorder, such as language difficulties and impulse control, and you can have a recipe for disaster.
“We don’t really know why our children appear to be attracted to water. What we do know is that people with autism have a very high rate of death by drowning. They may know exactly where they are going and what they want to do, but they may not communicate that to caregivers because of one of the main characteristics of autism: having a language disorder,” she explained. “They also don’t always understand the cause and effect of their actions. And as a parent, that’s the scary part.”
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.