By Karen Zautyk
Township police, aided by local firefighters and first responders from numerous other jurisdictions, spent the weekend in an exhaustive search for a Kearny man who is believed to have drowned after jumping or falling into the Passaic River early Friday.
The hunt was initially launched Friday at dawn and continued until dusk. Boats and scuba divers were out again Saturday and Sunday, from daylight to sundown. On Monday morning, the command center that had occupied the parking lot at the Kearny High School boathouse at Passaic Ave. and the Belleville Pike was gone – but the search had not been abandoned. It had simply moved temporarily downriver.
Kearny Police Chief John Dowie told The Observer that the teams were operating out of South Kearny, scouring the waters and riverbanks where the Lower Passaic feeds into Newark Bay and working their way back upriver.
“Now that the tide has receded,” Dowie said, “the smaller boats can start searching in the inlets.”
The divers and the boats were looking for 21-year-old Georgie Pena of Kearny, who police said had last been seen midstream in the river, being swept away by the current, after he entered the waters near Passaic and Magnolia Aves.
According to Dowie, Pena had first been spotted by police at 12:30 a.m. Friday walking shirtless in the southbound traffic lane of Passaic Ave. near North Midland Ave. where he was nearly struck by a passing car.
Dowie said the patrol officers recognized him as a town resident and that he appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or some other substance.
They “didn’t want him in the middle of the road” and offered him a ride home, the chief said. But when they exited their car, Pena reportedly ran from them and climbed the embankment to the old railroad trestle. The officers drove up to Old Passaic Ave. in an effort to locate him, “but they never saw him again,” Dowie said.
Dowie said Pena was not wanted by authorities and that the officers were not “chasing” him, but rather that he fled from them.
A short time later, other officers spotted Pena running across Passaic Ave. at the foot of Magnolia and followed him along a path to the riverbank, only to see him about midway across the river, “being carried south by the river’s current,” police reported.
The Kearny Fire Department and rescue boats from Wallington and Lyndhurst searched “for several hours with negative results,” police said. The hunt was resumed at daybreak Friday and, as of press time Monday, was ongoing.
The KPD was also aided by the State Police and Bergen County Police and first responders from North Arlington, Nutley and Oradell.
Asked on Friday why the divers were still in the waters off Kearny when the current had apparently been carrying Pena downstream, one source said that victims are often found within 100 yards of where they go under.
The scuba teams were forced to do a lot of their work merely by touch. “There is low visibility [in the river] to begin with,” Dowie explained, “and as soon as they begin to move around, the sediment is stirred up.”
That sediment and other Passaic River pollution are also the reason KFD and EMS decontamination teams were on hand at the riverbank to check the vital signs of the divers when they emerged.
Searchers had hoped to continue their operation late into Friday evening, but they had to suspend operations because the divers “were getting banged up in the rough waters,” one officer said.
They returned at dawn Saturday and worked through the weekend and into Monday.
How long would the search go on?
“Every available resource has been put into this and it will stay that way until things are resolved,” said Dowie.