By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Coast Guard, state and local emergency officials congregated at Cashman Park yesterday afternoon, hoping against hope to find boater Richard Decker, believed to have fallen into the Merrimack River sometime Thursday night.
Authorities aren't exactly sure what happened to Decker. They have been piecing together evidence.
According to Newburyport Police Marshall Thomas Howard, Newburyport police became aware of a potential problem around 9 p.m. Thursday night when they got a call about a lone dog tied to a pole at Cashman Park. Officers responded, Howard said, and, after failing to find the owner, they took the dog to the shelter.
The dog, a Siberian Husky named Toleman, was according to friends the beloved companion of Decker, who after living part-time with a friend in Ipswich has recently been living on an Endeavor 37-foot sailboat moored in the Merrimack, on the Salisbury side of the river off Cashman Park.
Yesterday morning, according to Newburyport Deputy Harbor Master Arthur Chaisson, Coast Guardsmen on a patrol up river came upon the Endeavor, with a swamped dingy tied to it. Boarding the sailboat, they found a cellphone, but no one on board. They contacted Newburyport authorities and began searching.
Howard said his department got the call at about 11:30 a.m. and had its dive team in the water searching for Decker by 12:30 p.m.
The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter to patrol the immediate area, up river as far as Merrimac and down to the ocean. Yesterday was a "flood tide," a twice-yearly event in which abnormally high tides occur, sending a strong surge of water up the river.
According to Plum Island resident Charles Crowley, who was working with Decker to improve the equipment on his boat, Decker was in his early 50s and a native of Germany who had been living in the United States for a while.
At Cashman Park yesterday in hopes of somehow helping, Crowley said he got a call from Decker's call phone last night at 8:40, but he wasn't aware of it until this morning.
Ipswich resident Sally Thomson, another friend of Decker, was also at Cashman Park. She'd received a call from the Coast Guard because they found her phone number on Decker's cellphone.
"He's a sweet man," Thomson said. "He lived with me for a year. He was living in his mobile home and he kept it at my place. When it got too cold for the mobile home, he came inside."
After selling the motor home and buying the sailboat, Decker lived on the boat, which was actually moored in at Crowley's mooring on the Salisbury side of the river.
By 3 yesterday afternoon, Howard said the circumstances weren't in Decker's favor. The swamped dingy, the water temperature, the number of hours Decker had been missing and likely in the river, and the fact that the tide had turned and was heading back out to sea all led him to believe the situation would not turn out well.
"The reality is that this is a search and recovery mission," Howard said.