BRIDGEWATER, NJ — It began as just a joke with a friend, and turned tragic when a 19-year-old was pulled from the Raritan River Sunday afternoon.
After about 15 minutes underwater, first responders pulled Elizabeth resident Pedro Rosa from the Raritan River, just west of Milltown Road on Sunday at about 4:20 p.m., police said.
First responders initially revived Rosa on the scene, where he was found without a pulse and not breathing. He was transported to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital where he died Sunday night at 10:35 p.m.
Bridgewater Township Police Officer Mark Zaslavsky was one of the first on the scene and administered the CPR that revived the teenager.
"I felt really great that we were able to bring him back, and I went home at midnight thinking he was alive," he said. "It was a downer finding out he wasn't."
According to Zaslavsky, he was at the on another first aid call, when he found out about the situation. He said he parked on the Route 22 bridge over the North Branch of the Raritan River.
"People were in the river searching for a person," he said. "I just knew it was a possible 18-year-old male."
Zaslavsky said he was able to identify a better location of where the teenager was located in the river.
"Most drownings, if you get to them very quickly, the person is within 10 to 20 feet from where they are last observed," he said. "I directed people to go to that location, and the father of the boy and his friend dipped down in the water and found his body face down."
As soon as they had found Rosa, Zaslavsky said, he—along with another Bridgewater Township Police officer and North Branch Fire Co. Deputy Chief Dave Hickson—began resuscitation efforts.
After performing CPR, Zaslavsky said, they got a pulse and blood pressure on Rosa, and he was taken to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital once the medics arrived.
"I followed up with him later, and the last call I got was at 9:15 p.m. and he was alive in the ICU," he said. "I found out today when I came in that he had died at 10:35 p.m. last night."
Zaslavsky said the incident may have been a joke gone horribly wrong.
Zaslavsky said a lot of people were swimming in the river, and spending time in the park nearby. Some, he said, were jumping off an area about 4 feet above the water level, at the base of the arch of the bridge in North Branch.
"People had been jumping off that all day long," he said.
In an interview of Rosa's friend, Zaslavsky said he learned that Rosa and the friend, who does not swim, decided they were going to go over to that arch and jump themselves.
"[The friend] was walking in the water and got to a point where it got deep, and since he doesn't swim, he got out," Zaslavsky said. "But Rosa was a swimmer, so he sort of mocked his friend because he was turning around."
"Rosa lowered himself in the water and made a comment that he was drowning, and then he popped back up," he added.
When Rosa lowered himself down into the water a second time, Zaslavsky said, everyone thought he was still joking—and then Rosa didn't come back up.
"The only things showing were the palms of his hands," Zaslavsky said. "His friend went to call to the family on the shore, and they thought he was kidding. And then they realized he wasn't kidding, and they went after him."
Zaslavsky said the call came in to the police department at 4:06 p.m., and they pulled Rosa out of the water at 4:19 p.m.
"He was immersed for about 13 to 15 minutes," he said.
But what aided in keeping Rosa alive a little longer, Zaslavsky said, may have been the water temperature. Because of the recent rains, the water was colder, and, because Rosa was submerged, that lowered his body termperature, keeping him alive, Zaslavsky said.
"The water temperature lowered his body temperature and aided to keep him alive a little, and our efforts did the next thing," he said. "That's what attributed to the success we had."
Zaslavsky said it will take the report from the medical expaminer to ultimately determine the cause of death.
"The lack of brain activity in the long run probably contributed to his death," he said.
Zaslavsky said he does not know why Rosa did not come back above the water the second time he went under, but debris in the river may have had something to do with it.
"Maybe when he faked it, there's a lot of debris in the river, and he may have caught himself in something," he said. "And then whatever was flowing with the current might have pulled him back under and he didn't realize it, so when he submerged a second time, he couldn't come up."
"It is a really unique situation in light of the sarcastic portion where he was teasing his friend," he added.
Still, Zaslavsky said, it is unfortunate that their best efforts couldn't save Rosa in the end. He said Rosa's mother thanked him for his work.
"His mother was so appreciative of the efforts, and that did more for us than anything, to have her say how wonderful we were," he said. "No medal could be a higher award than her compliment. I feel bad that it didn't turn out in the end where today he's still alive."
Zaslavsky said a lot of people go into the water in the area Rosa did, not knowing what the currents are like or where they will end up.
"I think it is not a place people should be swimming at all," he said. "It's like in the Atlantic Ocean, if you step in a rip current, the next thing you know you are under water."
"Rivers are not the place to swim," he added.
Bridgewater Township Police Lt. Al Nicaretta said families often take their dogs down to Ten Eyck Park in Branchburg and the river into Bridgewater, and there is a nice stretch where people like to "hang out."
"There are some spots with fishing holes, but people don't realize they aren't that deep," he said. "You see people with dogs throwing balls into the water, and it's a popular area."
Bridgewater Township Police Chief Richard Borden said the land is owned by the Somerset County Park Commission, and it is up to them to determine if signs should be put up to warn against swimming.
"People don't pay attention to signs as it is," Zaslavsky said.
Zaslavsky said people need to be careful whenever they go in the water, particularly if they don't swim.
"Wear buoyancy compensation devices, whether a vest or something," he said. "Know where you are going swimming."
Still, for all involved in these rescue efforts, they said they are proud of the work they did, despite being saddened that there wasn't a better outcome.
"It was a tragic ending, but an exceptional and outstanding effort performed," Borden said. "They revived the individual and got him to a position where he had a chance. I am very proud of their efforts down there."
Zaslavsky said it was a team effort to try and save a life.
"If not for everyone's efforts, he wouldn't have lived at all," he said.
Still, Zaslavsky said, he has been doing police and EMS work since the 1980s, and perspective is important when dealing with life-and-death situations.
"You win some and lose some, and you wish you won more than lost," he said. "You don't have an expectation you are going to win the battle over death in circumstances like this, and the balloon is deflated when you find out your efforts weren't valiant."
"But it's a team effort, and what I did wasn't any more spectacular than the other officers and firefighters," he added. "One person makes a part of a difference, but if I didn't have others to do work, I would fail anyway."