The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Fun night on river turns tragic
BY SCOTT SHENK
What started as a summertime trip to the Rappahannock River Tuesday night turned tragic when a Spotsylvania County teenager disappeared shortly after 9:30 p.m.
Divers found his body more than two hours later about 15 feet from the rocky shoreline near the 400 block of Riverside Drive in Fredericksburg.
Brandon Wichert, 18, a Massaponax High School graduate who worked at the Food Lion in the Lee’s Hill area, is the 89th person to drown in the Rappahannock River since 1985. The last drowning in the local stretch of the river was two years ago.
Wichert and about five friends appeared to be jumping off a rock known as the “first ledge,” said Mike Jones, deputy chief with the Fredericksburg Fire Department.
Wichert had stopped jumping with them at some point, said Stafford County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Bill Kennedy.
Later, though, after the friends jumped in, they looked back and Wichert was no longer sitting on the rock where he had been, according to Kennedy. The friends then looked along the shoreline and Riverside Drive, but didn’t find him. That’s when they called 911.
Shortly after 10 p.m., rescue swimmers were searching the area where Wichert had disappeared, as well as downstream, according to Jones.
Rescue divers eventually replaced the swimmers, as the search continued. It was just after midnight when the divers found the teenager’s body in about eight feet of water.
A State Police helicopter had been called to help in the search, but was canceled after the body was found.
The cause of the drowning is not known at this point, but the investigation and an autopsy could shed light on what happened, Jones said. Kennedy said there is no indication that Wichert couldn’t swim and no suspicion that alcohol was involved.
Jones said it appears that Wichert and his friends were simply enjoying something many other swimmers have done for years—jumping into the rapids, which then “shoot you down” to an eddy, where Wichert’s body was found.
“They were out trying to have a good time on the river,” Jones said.
The drowning is a grim reminder of the risk involved in swimming in the Rappahannock, the deputy chief said.
The river “looks very inviting, very nice on the surface,” Jones said. “But beneath it, you’ve got all sorts of danger and there’s no way to know” what or where those hazards are.
Swimming in the river at night, while not uncommon, also adds to the danger, he said.
“Anything along the river is risky when light is fading,” Jones said, noting that there is virtually no light in the area where the drowning occurred. Rescuers had to bring in portable lights to help with the search.
“When it gets that dark, you’re not gonna see much,” he said.
Those who worked with Wichert at Food Lion, where he was a bagger and cashier, were shocked to hear the news.
“He was loved here,” said Candice Glover, the store’s customer service manager, who said Wichert had worked there a little more than a year. “A lot of people are shook up. It’s really hit us hard.”
The last local drowning in the Rappahannock happened Aug. 8, 2010, near Fall Hill Avenue and Village Lane. A man from Sterling had been playing in the river with a friend before disappearing underwater. He was pulled from the river by bystanders, but attempts to revive him failed.
Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436