Did sirens on the Oswego River warn fishermen of rising waters?

Fishermen on the Oswego River near where men were rescued Tuesday. / photo: Alex Dunbar

As soon as fishermen in Oswego learned that one man had died and three men had been swept away by fast rising water near a hydro-electric plant dam - questions came up about the sirens that warn fisherman of rising water. Some fisherman said the sirens had not gone off before the water level rose quickly on Tuesday afternoon.

On Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen fishermen were wading in the Oswego River, but Michael Carpenter was watching from the shoreline. Just 24 hours earlier he and his son had been in waders hoping to reel in a few fish " until a fast rising current nearly swept them away.

"To drag him out by the arm in that current and watch the other guys trying to make it to safety and going down - that hurts, said Carpenter. It hurt me and it hurt him."

45-year-old Leonard Nichols and 52-year-old Clifford Luther were pulled out further up the river. Nichols died at the hospital and Luther was still in serious condition Wednesday.

The safety manager for the Varick Dam said he has started an internal investigation into exactly what happened Tuesday afternoon. Jeff Auser said he thinks the siren did go off and his investigation will focus on when did it go off, how long did it go off and how many times did it go off."

Michael Carpenter also had questions for Auser and said he wanted answers about the current that nearly swept his son and him away.

"There was no siren discernable in relation to we ought to get out of there, said Carpenter. There was nothing. There were sounds earlier, 45 minutes or an hour earlier - there was nothing in line with the water rising."

Jeff Auser said his internal investigation into what happened at the dam should be completed in a few days.

Original Story :

Police and hydroelectric plant operators were trying Wednesday to determine whether water from heavy rains or released from the Oswego River plant swept away four fishermen, drowning one and leading to dramatic rescues of the other three.

Witnesses said sirens used to warn fishermen of impending releases didn't sound early Tuesday afternoon before the rising water caught the four men. The four were in a popular salmon fishing spot about a mile from where the river empties into the eastern end of Lake Ontario at Oswego, 35 miles north of Syracuse.

Oswego police said there were "audible alerts," but continued their investigation into the timing in relation to when the water started to rise. Police Capt. Tory DeCaire said it wasn't known if rainy weather or water released from the Varick Dam plant caused the water to suddenly rise.

When the plant releases water, a siren sounds and a recorded message warns fishermen. Signs posted along the river warn anglers to "exit water immediately" whenever the siren sounds.

Toronto-based Brookfield Renewable Power Inc. operates the plant. Kim Osmars, chief operating officer for Brookfield's Marlborough, Mass.-based U.S. operations, said in a statement that the company has launched "a complete and thorough investigation" of safety and operations protocols at the hydro station.

A company spokeswoman had no further comment.

Witnesses said the four men were weighed down by water that filled their hip waders.

"All of a sudden the water just come up so fast," fisherman Jack MacDowell told Syracuse's WSYR-TV. "Nobody knew what to do. The guys were trying to scramble to get out, and you know they were falling and going under the water and they started to panic."

City firefighters used a rescue boat to pull two men from the water as they clung to sign poles in the river. Oswego Fire Chief Jeffrey McCrobie and Police Officer Damian Waters jumped into the river to rescue the other two men. They were picked up by a U.S. Coast Guard boat and brought to shore.

The second pair of rescued men were taken to Oswego Hospital, where Leonard Nichols, 45, of Wellsburg, was pronounced dead. Clifford Luther, 52, of Horseheads, was in serious condition at the hospital Wednesday. Police didn't release the names of the other two men.

Dave Robinson of Hancock told the Palladium-Times of Oswego that he was one of the four men caught by the water. He said he was standing in water up to his chest when the water began to rise. He and another man managed to grab sign poles and held on.

"I knew they were in trouble," Robinson said of the other men. "They knew they were in trouble. They were starting to go back and they just couldn't make it."

Other people fishing along the river, known for its salmon runs, said the siren had sounded earlier in the day, but not in the minutes before the four men were swept away at around 12:45 p.m.

"If we had an alarm, all this could have been prevented," Jared Crimmins, a fisherman from nearby Scriba, told WSYR.

Crimmins said Oswego is popular with out-of-state anglers who may not be as aware as local fishermen who know that particular stretch of river and the potential danger when the plant releases water.

The state Canal Corp. owns the dam and others along the Oswego Canal, which includes the river. Canal Director Carmella Mantello said the agency isn't involved in water releases at the Varick Dam plant, which is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)