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Slick rocks, high water a tragic mix at Lower Falls

By Erik Eisele
CONWAY — Authorities released additional details Wednesday about the Swift River rescue Tuesday afternoon, including the identity of the woman who died.
Sophal Hak, 56, of Lowell, Mass., and Sanamaran Keo, 50, of Dracut, Mass., who were misidentified in initial reports as related, were in the water just upstream of Lower Falls in Albany, according to Sgt. Brian Abrams of New Hampshire Fish and Game. "They were wading and lost their footing."
The slick rocks made it impossible for the pair to fight the current, he said. The rushing water, swollen by the recent rains, carried both women over the falls.
Conway Village Fire District fire chief Steve Solomon said his department received the call at 3:15 p.m. The report was two subjects had been swept over the falls. "While still en route to the scene, Conway Fire was updated that one subject was hanging onto a rock mid-river," Solomon said in a statement, "and the second subject had been swept away and could no longer be seen."
Keo was able to grab hold of a rock and pull herself out of the water, Abrams said. She was perched in the middle of the river roughly 300 meters below the falls. Keo had tried to help Hak, Abrams said, but she was unsuccessful.
Conway Fire's Swiftwater/Flood Rescue Team took the lead in the response, assessing the situation and deploying rescue swimmers to Keo. Firefighters from Conway and North Conway, meanwhile, along with U.S. Forest Service personnel, Carroll County Sheriff's deputies, State Troopers and Fish and Game officers began searching downstream for Hak. Volunteers from the White Mountain Swift Water Rescue Team also provided a pair of highly skilled kayakers to search the river from boats, Solomon said.
As the search for Hak got under way, swiftwater team swimmers were able to cross the rapids and make contact with Keo. They put her in a life jacket and helmet, Solomon said, then pulled her to shore. One of the swimmers as well as ropes were used to assist her through the rough water.
The water was 58 degrees, Abrams said. "She was exhausted and cold."
Roughly two miles downstream, meanwhile, a U.S. Forest Service searcher located the body of Hak at 4:19 p.m. Her body came to a rest in a shallow part of the river, Abrams said, caught between two rocks.
The swiftwater team was again deployed, this time to retrieve her body. They had her out of the water by 4:35 p.m., Solomon said.
Tuesday's incident was the third time the swiftwater team deployed this year, he said.
This section of the Swift has a history of such accidents.
"There's been several drownings over the years at Lower Falls," Abrams said. The easy access from the road combines with slick rocks to make the area prone to problems. He urged people playing in or on the water to be cautious.
"Wear life preservers," he said. "They save lives."

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