BERRYVILLE — A 24-year-old man tubing in the Shenandoah River at Watermelon Park in Clarke County died in an apparent drowning Wednesday.
Javier Pedro Garay, of the 1400 block of Cindy Circle in Washington, D.C., was tubing with about 10 relatives, including his parents, when he went under water around 6:20 p.m., according to Chief Deputy Travis M. Sumption of the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office. “As soon as they noticed he didn’t come back up out of the water, they started frantically searching,” he said.
A helicopter crew spotted Garay and directed boats to him. Blue Ridge Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company members recovered Garay’s body around 7:45 p.m.
Park owner John Miller III said on Thursday that up to 500 people tube on weekdays and up to 1,500 per day on weekends in the summertime. He said Garay’s death is one of two involving tubing since the park began renting tubes in the late 1980s. The other death occurred around 2013 and didn’t involve someone who rented a tube from the park.
Miller said Garay and his family are regular tubers at the park and that Garay had been there three or four times this year. Sumption couldn’t confirm it, but Miller said he was told by a deputy that Garay’s family said he did a back flip off the tube and his head struck a rock.
“They said he was a really good swimmer,” Miller said. “When he did it and went under water, they [first]] thought he was messing around and kind of went on. They said when they looked back and didn’t see him, they started searching.”
Miller said he feels terrible about the death and that he tries to keep customers safe. “We’ve got pretty good, calm water through here and it’s not really deep,” he said.
People rent tubes at a cost of about $8 per hour with a maximum stay in the water of three hours. Customers are not supposed to leave the doughnut-shaped tubes while on the river and alcohol is not permitted on the river, although Miller said the alcohol prohibition is difficult to enforce. Autopsy results, which include a toxicological report, won’t be back for at least a month. However, Sumption said there was no evidence found at the scene indicating Garay’s death was alcohol-related.
Besides tubing, the park, which includes an RV campground, rents out kayaks. The park, at 3322 Lockes Mill Road, was originally part of a farm owned by Miller’s grandfather who helped pay off the debt on the property in 1942 by selling watermelons.
People tubing on Thursday expressed shock at the drowning, saying the river is calm and safe.
“That’s crazy. It’s so shallow,” said Misty Guitieriez, a Prince William County resident who was tubing in the river for the first time along with her family. “I can’t imagine someone dying.”
Garay wasn’t wearing a life preserver, but Sumption said all river users should do so due to undercurrents and parts of the riverbed that descend steeply.
“Even though it looks shallow, you can drop off into a hole pretty quickly,” he said. “You should always wear a life preserver no matter what you’re doing.”