This sign seen Monday in Auburn was one of those that went up last June next to river access points, including at Bonney Park, where 5-year-old Valerio McFarland and his older brother, Maxim, fell into the Androscoggin River in April. A year after Valerio’s drowning, Auburn officials said fencing is being installed. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

AUBURN — One year later, the river is just as angry.

In fact, water levels this week — exactly one year after tragedy struck on the Androscoggin River — reached a five-year high.

This time, as people gravitate toward the Great Falls and the riverbanks of Lewiston and Auburn to catch a glimpse of the fury, they find a few reminders of what happened last year. On the Auburn side, signs say, “Enjoy our river safely.” An asterisk at the bottom is followed by, “Supervise children at all times.”

Next month — later than officials had hoped — new fencing will be installed at Bonney Park, where 5-year-old Valerio McFarland and his 10-year-old brother, Maxim, had been playing on April 24, 2018.

When Valerio fell into the river, at about 7 p.m., Maxim jumped in to save him. Both were swept away. Only Maxim would survive.

Rescuers struggle to move a young man out of the Androscoggin River on Tuesday night in Auburn. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal) Sun Journal file photo

About 40 minutes later, firefighters pulled Maxim from the river into a canoe. He was first taken to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, then flown to Maine Medical Center in Portland.

The rescue marked the beginning of a large-scale search effort for Valerio that lasted nearly three weeks. The community threw its support behind the family with vigils and volunteer searches on the river. The McFarlands had moved to Main Street in Auburn four days before the tragedy.

During a news conference held by the family a week after the incident, the boys’ father said, “I’ve never seen a river so angry.” The family thanked first responders for saving Maxim’s life, and pleaded for help in finding Valerio.

The boy’s body was not found until May 14 in Durham, about 5 miles downstream from where he had fallen into the water.

‘Observe from a safe distance’

A year later, the river’s temper has returned, as it often does in the spring. The falls between Lewiston and Auburn were roaring this week, attracting spectators along with warnings for viewing the river safely.

On Monday, officials reminded people that a flood warning had been extended through Monday night. The warning from the Androscoggin County Emergency Management Agency was predicting river levels to reach between 13 and 14 feet. It is considered “flood stage” at 13 feet. At 13½ feet, Route 136 in Durham begins to flood.

“Please be aware that water levels are very high,” said a post on the city’s Facebook page. “The mighty Androscoggin is truly something to behold when it is this swift, but if you head down to see it, be sure to observe from a safe distance. Stay safely away from the riverbanks and shoreline.”

Following the drowning last year, new signs went up in June at water access points in Auburn, including Bonney Park. The signs warn, “Strong current,” “Swift water” and “Uneven shoreline.”

For city officials, responding to the tragedy wasn’t simple. In the days following Valerio’s disappearance, the cities received some criticism over safety measures at water access points on both sides of the river, including on social media from Jason McFarland, the boys’ father. He pointed to decrepit fencing along the riverbank that had been knocked over long ago.

The McFarlands did not respond to a request for an interview Tuesday.

While accidental drownings in the river are a rare occurrence, the incident last year in Bonney Park brought back memories of where its name originated.

On April 6, 1981, Auburn police officers Rodney “Rocky” Bonney and John Perrino responded to the trestle behind Florian’s on Main Street when a boy fell into the river. Both officers dove into the swift current to save the boy. Perrino was able to swim back to safety. Bonney and the boy drowned.

Auburn City Manager Peter Crichton said this week that a section of black aluminum fencing will be installed soon along the bank near Bonney Park. Costing about $7,000, he said it will have a gate with a button latch, meant to keep small children from wandering down to the water alone.

Crichton said city staff hoped to have the fencing installed earlier. The business with the winning bid has a backlog of projects, he said. It was ordered this past winter.

“They know it’s a priority for us,” he said.

He said the signs were put in place sooner as a precaution, as a way to “make sure people are paying attention to the risk, particularly if they have young children with them.”

In Lewiston, “No swimming” signs were installed in Simard-Payne Memorial Park at the river access point near the cross canals.

But ultimately, people can go around a fence or ignore the signs.

“We’re trying to be extra cautious in terms of what we’re doing, but we can’t control everything,” Crichton said. “We can’t control what people do. We’re trying to do what we can do to prevent another tragedy from happening.”

‘An indelible mark’

Following the incident, a group of city officials and law enforcement from Lewiston-Auburn met with representatives from Brookfield Renewable Partners, which owns the Great Falls dam over the Androscoggin, to evaluate the response effort.

Jason Moen, Auburn’s police chief who coordinated the rescue efforts last year as deputy chief, said this week that the tragedy gave the department a better understanding of the river and its currents.

“April 2018 was a rough month for our responders,” he said. “This incident, coupled with the murder of Cpl. (Eugene) Cole, left an indelible mark on our souls.”

A post-incident evaluation in Auburn led to at least one major change in protocol, he said, which is personnel positioning during similar incidents.

“We are now planning to position personnel further downstream for these types of calls,” he said.

Moen said the city has secured grant funding to place personal flotation devices in each emergency response vehicle, which will occur this summer. He said officers from the Maine Warden Service were “instrumental throughout the ordeal,” and were ultimately able to provide some closure for the family.

Paul LeClair, director of Lewiston-Auburn 911, said he remembers the coordinated effort of the multiple agencies and efforts of individual responders as “remarkable.”

“For emergency responders — police, fire and dispatchers alike — the emotional impact the death of a child has on everyone involved is what never leaves us,” he said this week. “Thoughts and prayers for the family continue and we routinely discuss ways for the dispatchers to deal with the aftereffects of such incidents.”

In terms of general protocol, he said, dispatch hasn’t changed. But a new communication system on the verge of implementation in the Twin Cities could have an impact on how emergencies like the one on the river are handled.

The new system, at a cost of roughly $6 million split between Lewiston and Auburn, will convert the existing analog system to digital. It has been touted as a way to alleviate radio disruptions caused by a lack of frequencies.

The additional talk channels of a digital 911 system “will be an asset for all emergency incidents,” LeClair said.

Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett seconded the importance of the new system for addressing issues, saying that the “availability of limited radio channels” is something that affects a number of emergency response situations.

On a related note, he said, now that the city of Lewiston owns the canal system, city staff will be “reviewing and developing risk management plans to address safety issues that may exist there, as well.”

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