Cody Binkley and Mary Bredbenner loaded their 3-year-old daughter and black Labrador retriever into their 16-foot flat-bottomed fishing boat Monday night at a boat ramp in Middletown and headed upstream on the Susquehanna River.
It’s unclear if Binkley knew the extent of the dangers in the darkness ahead, including the Dock Street Dam in Harrisburg, known as a killing machine.
At least 17 people have drowned there in recent years after coming too close to the deceptively powerful low-head dam, which creates violent churning water that overturns boats and traps its victims.
Binkley reportedly was headed to a destination north of the dam to fish or camp, which seems to indicate he was unaware of the dam’s existence since there was no way he could get past it. There are buoys and signs warning of the dam, but it’s unclear if Binkley saw them.
Authorities believe his boat flipped over as it entered the dam’s boil line, dumping the family and their dog into the chilly, unforgiving water.
Binkley managed to swim to the shore, and climbed out near the PennDOT building in Harrisburg suffering from hypothermia. He told authorities he thought his boat capsized close to where he ended up.
So that’s where firefighters started searching for his fiancee and child. But firefighters ended up finding his boat 20 feet south of the dam within the hydraulic forces of the dam.
The boat could not have drifted that far upstream from PennDOT against the current, authorities said.
Instead, it’s likely that when the boat overturned, the anchor fell out of the boat, helping to hold it in place near the dam, said Harrisburg Deputy Fire Chief Michael Souder.
It doesn’t appear that the boat went over the dam, Souder said, because the boat and debris likely would have been found directly against the dam. That’s what firefighters have seen in previous incidents when boaters have gone over the dam.
Instead, a field of debris from the contents of the boat and Bredbenner’s body along with her deceased dog were found downstream. Among the debris was a cooler with food, camping and fishing gear and a single sneaker.
Their daughter Madelyn Binkley, who reportedly was wearing a life vest, remains missing.
Crews went out on the water again Wednesday on a recovery mission with cadaver-sniffing dogs searching every place south of the dam. They plan to stay out until dark, because the risk to rescuers is too great after that.
The river is filled with hazards, including rocks, branches, shallow spots, deep trenches.
“It’s not like a wide-open lake,” said Swatara Township Fire Chief Mike Ibberson.
The river’s current water level of five to six feet falls within a dangerous “sweet spot” that makes the dam even more volatile. Low water levels and very high water levels tend to mitigate the volatility, he said.
Another death potentially linked to the dam has raised concerns again about the safety of the dam so close to so many water recreational activities.
“It’s just unconscionable that the Dock Street Dam still exists in its current state,” said Steve Oliphant, owner of Susquehanna Outfitters. “We have a known source of death alongside a public recreational pool.”
A high school friend of Oliphant’s drowned at the dam and he has watched as additional people are killed every few years. A fisherman barely escaped the “drowning machine” in 2016. The violent water ripped off all of his clothes as he clung to his boat. Firefighters then risked their lives to save him.
Oliphant said he understands solutions to fix the dam could be expensive, “but how much is a 3-year-old child’s life worth? We know someone else is going to die near that dam again.”
The 100-year-old dam is owned by the city of Harrisburg. The dam is crumbling and needs to be replaced but it carries a price tag of tens of millions of dollars, which the cash-strapped city doesn’t have.
Harrisburg Mayor said the dam and potential solutions have been studied before in prior decades, but the city wasn’t planning to move forward on anything.
“We already have lots of other multi-million dollar problems we’re working on,” he said.
The district attorney’s office is investigating the death of Bredbenner, because of the unusual nature of the family taking a small child on swift water late at night.
Officials also found a pouch of marijuana on Binkley, which added to investigators’ concerns, said District Attorney Fran Chardo.
Toxicology tests will be run on blood samples from Binkley and Bredbenner.
As part of the investigation, Chardo previously asked for any witnesses to come forward.
“I found that this required additional investigation,” Chardo said.
One man wrote to Binkley on Facebook and said he and his family saw Binkley and his family at the boat launch in Middletown.
“We were the people with the little boy … that Mary and your daughter were talking to when you were putting in,” the man wrote. “Our hearts are truly broken for you.”
During the rescue efforts Monday, state police officers flew a helicopter over the river with heat-seeking detectors focusing on the dam area first, while boats equipped with sonar detectors searched along the water along with officers wearing night-vision goggles.
Officials had more than a dozen boats in the water and they searched every inch of bank, island and water in Harrisburg’s city limits, Souder said. Other crews worked south of Harrisburg to search within their jurisdictions.
The child was last seen wearing a life-vest, Souder said, but it’s unknown if it may have slipped off, or been torn off, especially if it wasn’t put on securely or wasn’t the right size. The current of the water can be dangerous even with a vest on, Souder said, as the vest can get snagged on branches and debris and serve to pull people under water.
“We’ve seen the current destroy boats, so anything’s possible,” Souder said.
The river can be dangerous for people who aren’t familiar with the current speeds, flow patterns and the location of the dam.
“People who maybe don’t know the river or don’t take time to learn about it,” Souder said, “that’s where you can find yourself in trouble.”