AUBURN — City Manager Peter Crichton believes the area where two local boys were swept away by the Androscoggin River is safe, despite a public plea by the boys’ parents to make the river’s edge less inviting to children who play in the park steps away.

“There have been thousands, tens of thousands of families that have enjoyed that park over the years. There’s not a pattern of unintentional drowning,” Crichton said Wednesday.

But while Crichton believes the area is safe, he has asked the Androscoggin Land Trust, a nonprofit familiar with the area, to look into the situation and offer recommendations. He said the land trust had not yet responded to his request.

Crichton said it was too early to say whether the city would put up fencing or warning signs if the land trust were to suggest it.

“I’m taking it one step at a time,” he said.

Five-year-old Valerio McFarland fell into the river while playing with his brother on April 24. His brother, 10-year-old Maxim McFarland, jumped in after him. Both boys were quickly swept away by the current, despite attempts by their father and young sister to reach them.

The family had just moved to Auburn and live on Main Street.

Rescuers saved Maxim, who is being treated at Maine Medical Center in Portland. Valerio has not been found.

On Tuesday, the boys’ parents spoke to reporters for the first time since the incident. They pleaded for volunteers to help the Maine Warden Service find Valerio’s body and bring him home.

A volunteer search effort was launched Wednesday along the west bank of the Androscoggin River.

Two boys were swept away last week while playing in this area along the banks of the Androscoggin River near Bonney Park in Auburn. Sun Journal/Andree Kehn

At least 10 pairs of volunteers equipped with binoculars and life jackets were deployed by the nonprofit DEEMI or Down East Emergency Medicine Institute, which organizes search, rescue and recovery operations in Maine.

The family also said they want donations from recently created YouCaring and GoFundMe pages to go toward making the riverbank safer in that area, including fencing to block easy access to the water and safety buoys that could be tossed by someone on land to someone in the water.

“We know it’s going to be impossible to secure the whole length of the river because that is just not feasible,” the boys’ mother, Helena Gagliano-McFarland, said Tuesday. “But at least not make it inviting for small children to go down there or spots where you can go right down to the water, which you can do right now in multiple places.”

The spot where the boys are believed to have gone in the water features stone steps that lead visitors down to a sitting area, followed by a dirt path that goes to the river’s edge. While the area is flanked by trees, the path is largely clear and open, with easy access to the water.

It is steps away from Bonney Park, which is between Main Street and the river. It’s a popular family spot and playground named in honor of an Auburn police officer who died in 1981 trying to save a boy who had fallen in the river.

On Wednesday, the park was filled with parents and children enjoying summer-like weather as the river rushed nearby.

“I was even leery on our bike ride today,” said Nicole Plourde, who lives in Lewiston and frequently takes her 5- and 8-year-old boys to the park. “I kept giving them spots to stop at, ‘Don’t go past that point,’ because we talked about what happens if you lose control of your bike and go toward the river. It’s always in the back of your mind.”

She liked the idea of fencing. Her 8-year-old son, Paxton, thought there should also be warning signs.

Others in the park echoed the sentiment. Some said they’d always thought the area should be better secured.

“I remember when I first moved out here with my kids and we first started walking on (the pedestrian) bridge over here,” Shae Propser of Lewiston said. “One of the main things I remember saying is, ‘Why do they have all this water here and they don’t have anything blocking?’ It was like, wow, they’re really carefree around here. Then you hear about this tragedy,” the mother of three ages 3 to 13 said.

Not everyone agreed. One man walking with a woman and young child declined to give his name but said he believes fencing – unless it’s “excessive” fencing – wouldn’t deter children from playing by the water.

“It sounds silly to say, but it seems as though it’s going to happen regardless, occasionally, no matter how much we spend to put money into it,” he said.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque pointed out that there have been no similar accidents in the area for at least 20 years. He favors a discussion before the city takes any action so that it isn’t “just slapping on a Band-Aid that might look and feel appropriate but actually might not be the right solution.”

“Obviously, one tragedy is one too many, but instead of jumping to solutions for a problem that we have yet to fully understand, we want to get stakeholders together, Androscoggin Land Trust and people from outside of this area to see what they’ve done with their great rivers. It’s about conversation,” Levesque said.

Part of that discussion, he said, should be about educating children and adults about water safety.

“How do we develop programs that help further and enhance the education?” he asked. “What to do in scenarios, how to avoid certain situations, and really just increase the educational level of the community on water safety.”

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