Seven die in waters around the state

Pittsburgh — Five people lost their lives on fisheries across Pennsylvania Aug. 20, while two others succumbed to apparent drownings Aug. 14.

Four of the fatalities were boating-related and equal the total number of boating-related deaths reported last year, according to the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, which does not keep statistics on wading or swimming incidents.

The Aug. 20 deaths included three anglers boating on the Allegheny River near Clarion, a Lycoming County man who drowned on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River after he jumped from a moving boat, and a 17-year-old boy who drowned while swimming in Raystown Lake.

In the Aug. 14 incident, a pair of anglers – Steven Sieminski, 62, and his son Justin, 30, of Natrona Heights – perished apparently while wading in the Allegheny River north of Pittsburgh. Their bodies were found floating in the river two days later.

According to family members, they’d gone fishing the previous Sunday night at a popular spot in Lower Burrell and did not return home the following day as planned.

Although both men are presumed to have drowned, autopsy results had not been released as of Aug. 27.

The boating incident on the Allegheny Aug. 20 left Timothy Jones, 62, of Tarentum, Joe Wrbas 48, of Butler, and Chad Wilson, 34, of Prospect, dead under their capsized 21-foot watercraft which had run aground in East Brady near Clarion.

Wrbas’ father, 70-year-old Richard Wrbas, of Butler, survived and was life-flighted to a Pittsburgh hospital. His condition was unknown Aug. 27.

“He was trapped at the front of the boat but he was in an air pocket so he was able to breath, and he was conscious when he was found,” said the Fish & Boat Commission’s northwest region director Tom Edwards.

An investigation was expected to take several weeks and would include determining whether speed was a factor, he said.

“We’ll check the location of the throttle to gauge speed. There’s not a lot of time to react between when you know you’re going to impact to when you do impact,” Edwards said. “We’ll look at transfer marks (on the boat) from rocks or anything else on shore … the path (the boat) took coming out of the river and the distance it traveled.”

The incident occurred above Lock No. 9 in a free-flowing part of the Allegheny that is popular with boaters but can be difficult to navigate at night, Edwards said.

“It’s not like down on the Three Rivers, where there are lights everywhere,” he said, referring to the lower Allegheny, where it meets the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River near Pittsburgh. “Any time you’ve got restricted visibility, like late at night, you have to slow down.”

The wreckage of the boat was discovered by another boater the morning of Aug. 21.

The victims had a camp across the river in Wattersonville, Armstrong County, according to campground owner Gabriella Offutt, who told local media she had known the men for 16 years and had seen Timothy Jones just the day before.

“He was walking back to get on the jet-ski and he stopped and talked to me and that was it,” she is quoted as saying. “I mean he shook my hand and that was the last time I saw him.”

In the Susquehanna River incident, Sean Lowmiller, 41, South Williamsport, Lycoming County, died after jumping from a boat that carried five other men and women, according to the Fish & Boat Commission’s northcentral region manager Gerald Barton, who noted that alcohol was a factor.

“The majority of people in the boat had been partying all night,” he said. “A survivor who had jumped in with (Lowmiller) said he hadn’t slept all night,” he said.

“The boat was headed upriver near the Linden access area and moving at a pretty good speed – 30 to 35 miles an hour – when the victim decided to jump.”

Lowmiller’s body was recovered about an hour later in 10 feet of water where he had gone in, Barton said.

“The other man who had jumped in said he had tried to keep him above water, but hadn’t been able to. We don’t know if it was the way (Lowmiller) hit the water, whether it knocked the air out of his lungs, but he drowned.”

Although water was low and clear when the drowning occurred, tragedies such as this point to the need to be cautious while boating, he said. “Water, while good for recreation, is dangerous in nature and people tend to overlook that. We make assumptions that because we can swim there’s no need for a PFD (personal flotation device).”

You assume more of a risk if you’re not sober, Barton added. “The water, the motion of the boat, the sun – all of those things – amplify the effects of alcohol. You’ll react differently on the water after two beers than if you’re sitting on dry ground.”

The same day Lowmiller died, a Berks County boy identified as Bobby Joe Utley, 17, died of an apparent drowning while swimming in Raystown Lake.

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