In Hoboken, where violent crime is uncommon and murder nearly non-existent, the gruesome deaths dealt by the Hudson River’s rushing current hold an outsized profile in the minds of residents. The fact that drownings in the Hudson are themselves a relatively rare occurrence has not made the phenomenon any less terrifying.
According to the New Jersey Medical Examiner, from 2008 to 2011, only three people died of drowning in Hudson County – yet, in the last six months, at least three were found dead after falling into the Hoboken waterfront. The deaths have raised questions about potential measures the city should be taking to help prevent future drownings.
Two young adults drowned off of Hoboken in mid-April after one jumped in into the river and his friend tried to save him. In a separate case, a 27-year-old Hoboken resident was found in a ferry slip south of the Hoboken terminal almost a month after disappearing while running on the waterfront.
City spokesman Juan Melli said that since that time, the city has undertaken a few projects aimed at making the waterfront more secure. Along the waterfront’s railings, the city has begun installing orange signs warning about the danger posed by the Hudson’s strong currents.
The city has also ordered 45 specially designed water rescue throw bags, with plans to place them in every squad car, according to Melli. Each bag contains 75 feet of buoyant rope. Melli said many Hoboken police officers already have training with the devices.
“We put live preservers around. They were gone in a week.” –Theresa Castellano
The city has also increased patrols by Class II police officers along the river.
Some residents say these measures will not do enough to save lives. They argue that the drowning threat will persist as long as the Hoboken’s waterfront design prevents individuals from getting out of the water once they have gotten in.
No way out
Hoboken’s waterfront is almost completely inscribed by railings, which prevent easy entry into the Hudson but also prevent easy exit. Only three locations allow exit from the Hudson River in Hoboken—the kayak launch in Frank Sinatra Park at Fifth Street, the beach in Maxwell Place Park at 11th Street, and the rocks at Weehawken Cove.
The river is also fast and unpredictable. Where it passes Hoboken, the Hudson’s flow is fully dictated by the tides of the Atlantic Ocean, and the current they generate regularly reaches three miles per hour.
As such, individuals that survive falling into the Hudson are typically young and strong enough to swim and grasp a piling until they can be rescued. In March, a man who was alleged thrown into the Hudson after leaving a bar on St. Patrick’s Day survived by holding onto a pylon, according to a police report. Passers by heard his cries and alerted the police, who arrived to throw him a rope.
In July, two men jumped into the river to save a 38-year-old woman who had allegedly jumped in to save her teddy bear, according to reports. Video from the scene appeared to show the men dragging the woman close to one of the pylons of Pier C Park, where police from Hoboken and New York City were able to save them.
But cases can just as easily go the other way. This past April, the bodies of two Newark residents, a 20-year-old and a 24-year-old, were recovered from the Hudson River. The two friends had been walking in Pier C Park when the 20-year-old jumped into the river, according to another friend who was with them. The 24-year-old jumped in to save him, their mutual friend said, but both drowned.
The current is so threatening that people have drowned in Hoboken even with the police present for the entire incident. In October 2004, a 16-year-old jumped into the Hudson while fleeing police, yelling that he wouldn’t go back to prison. Police at the scene tried to lower a belt to him, but none entered the water out of fear of the Hudson’s undertow. The teen soon drowned.
In a letter to the editor last week, Hoboken resident Alan Welner called it “a shame that little thought has been given to enabling emergency exit from the water.” Welner said the city should add steps in the bulkhead walls, ropes, and more small boat launches where rescue vessels can be launched.
Welner was one of the activists who fought for the beach and boathouse in Maxwell Place Park. Before the Hoboken waterfront renovation, he said, there was no public boat launch in the 10 miles of New Jersey coastline between Liberty State Park and the George Washington Bridge.
In a letter to city officials, Hoboken resident Rose Orozco also called for more to be done to prevent drowning. She pointed to a system of life preservers and emergency phones posted at regular intervals along the cliffs in Santa Cruz, California, and suggested that Hoboken institute a similar system.
Melli said the city has looked into installing ladders or a floating line all along the waterfront, but has not decided to actively pursue such ideas at this time. He said building below the water line would “require permits and approvals at the state and federal level, including the Army Corps of Engineers.”
He added that the administration was concerned that “many of these ideas could attract even more people to enter the water.”
Still no security cameras
The lack of police surveillance cameras on the waterfront came to light after 27-year-old Hoboken resident Andrew Jarzyk disappeared while jogging on the morning of March 30.
Security camera footage from a restaurant near the waterfront showed Jarzyk passing Pier C at around 2 a.m. Two of Hoboken’s municipal cameras were also located on the waterfront, but as an NBC investigative report later discovered, the system was no longer in operation.
Almost a month later, Jarzyk’s body was found floating in the ferry slips south of Hoboken’s train terminal. It is still not known how he ended up in the river that night.
Melli told NBC that the city had stopped paying maintenance fees for its cameras in 2009 after a state-appointed fiscal monitor said the contract had not been procured properly. The city had been paying $30,000 to $40,000 a year for the cameras’ upkeep.
In addition, Melli said the cameras, which had been in operation since 2004, were out of date.
Tamer Zachary, the founder of the company that maintained the cameras, disputed Melli’s account, telling NBC that the Hoboken system was functional when the contract ended and could still have been used by the police department.
This past April, Melli said that the city had won a nearly $124,000 grant from DHS, funneled through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to install eight new security cameras on the waterfront.
According to the city’s subgrant agreement for the cameras, DHS had disbursed the money to Port Authority in March 2011. Despite this, Melli told NBC that the city did not learn it had earned the funding until March of this year.
On April 16, the City Council unanimously approved the grant. The city had to throw in an additional $53,000 from its Law Enforcement Trust Fund to cover the program’s full cost.
Melli said this past week that the city has begun installing the poles that will hold the new cameras, including one in Pier A Park. He added that the system could be fully operational in several weeks.
To the water’s edge
When the movement to revitalize Hoboken’s waterfront crystallized in the early 1990s, the primary concern was getting up to the water, not out of it. First Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, who was first elected in 1995, recalled the chain-link fence that enclosed the whole waterfront during her youth.
At the time, Port Authority hoped to build valuable developments on the piers near its PATH train station. After two successive Port Authority proposals were rejected by voters, the city settled on the design that has come to define Hoboken today, with apartment towers and other developments built up behind a system of parks and promenades.
Ron Hine was central to these discussions as a founder of the Fund for a Better Waterfront, which opposed the Port Authority plans. Hine said he didn’t recall the issue of water exit points or anti-drowning measures coming up in the discussions surrounding the new waterfront design.
Hine said the longstanding cultural perception of the Hudson as a dirty river may have been a factor. Before the Clean Water Act and various local efforts began to improve water quality, the Hudson was rightly deemed unfit for swimming.
“Now, of course, it’s much cleaner and people are advocating to actually get into the water,” said Hine.
Castellano, whose council ward includes the popular parks on Pier A and C, said that years ago, the city made efforts to ensure the safety of the waterfront, but they were stymied.
“We put live preservers around. They were gone in a week,” she said. “We put live preservers out again, and they were gone in a week.” Eventually, said Castellano, the city stopped replacing them.