A fishing trip turns tragic on the Merrimack River, leaving
a family to mourn
Alec Bronchuk, 20, drowned in the Merrimack River in
Concord while fishing in June.
By NICK STOICO
Concord Monitor staff
Scraping through the brush along the Merrimack River as
cold raindrops poured overhead, Jake Bronchuk hoped each branch he pushed aside
would be the one to reveal his son.
It was June 13, and Alec Bronchuk had been missing since
early that morning in Concord. A day of fishing on the Merrimack River with his
older brother, Sean Donahue, had taken a turn when their kayaks began to sink
and both fell into the quick current of the river. Sean managed to reach the
river’s west bank and called for help, setting off a search for Alec that
involved Fish and Game, State Police, Marine Patrol, and the Concord fire and
As these agencies deployed their resources and scoured the
river and surrounding area for Alec, his parents kept looking. Jake and
Michelle Bronchuk went up and down the river’s banks between the Sewalls Falls
Bridge and the old dam, just short of a mile.
As the hours passed, hope for Alec’s rescue dwindled. About
300 yards downstream from where Sean last saw Alec, Jake found a white Nike
sneaker floating near the bank. It was Alec’s shoe. “I knew at that point he
was gone,” Jake said, sitting in the living room of his Merrimack home with
Michelle and Sean.
Jake began to pick up items he found along the bank – a
deflated football, a golf ball, a small rock with a flower painted on it. He
held onto these things, because it wasn’t until the following day that a Fish
and Game diver would recover Alec’s body from the river. Until then, Jake and
Michelle didn’t know if they’d see their 20-year-old son again.
“I thought for sure we were going to be burying a football,
a rock and a golf ball instead of our son,” Jake said.
‘He loved nature’
Alec Bronchuk was always running out the door, to football
practice or lacrosse, to play a round of golf or to go hunting or fishing. He
still found time to be home in Merrimack, playing NHL video games and recording
music with his brothers or writing poetry in his room. But he was most
comfortable in the outdoors, a passion that his father, Jake, had passed on to
Alec and his two brothers, Sean and Jesse.
Jake grew up on the South Shore in Weymouth, Mass., and
Michelle is from South Boston. When he was in seventh grade, Jake joined his
school’s Fish and Game Club and was drawn to his teacher’s stories of hunting
trips in “the great North Woods.”
“I spent my youth sort of day-dreaming of that kind of a
lifestyle,” Jake said.
In the early 2000s, Jake and Michelle moved with their boys
to New Hampshire and settled in Merrimack. “I started living the outdoorsman’s
dream from Day 1 and got my fishing and hunting licenses, and my boys were my
constant companions,” he said.
All the boys started hunting and fishing at a young age
with their father. Jake remembers spending hours waterfowling with Alec, who
eventually started going on his own trips with his brothers and friends as he
got older. And the boys’ skills in the woods and on the water began to surpass
those of their father. Jake smiles and jokes that he was Elmer Fudd because “we
never caught anything” when he took his sons.
“Usually the first thing Alec wanted to do when he got home
was rub it in my face that he actually bagged something,” Jake said, laughing.
“And then he’d chase his mother around the house with the carcass while she was
screaming to get it out of the house.”
“It never got old,” Michelle said. “He loved nature.”
Alec had just finished his sophomore year at Plymouth State
University, where he was majoring in criminal justice and playing football. He
was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do. He was considering
switching his major to psychology, maybe transferring to another school. He
considered serving in the military and had been in touch with a recruiter.
Summer was getting underway, and Alec and Sean were
spending almost every morning on the water. “We were on the striper grind, so
we’d go down to Newburyport and Hampton,” Sean said. They learned from an
article online that the section of the Merrimack River by the Sewalls Falls
Bridge had some big Atlantic salmon. Alec, Sean and Jesse all went to fish the
river in June. They had a good day, but came away with only bites.
Sean and Alec returned to the same spot around dawn the
next day. They set off from the boat launch, their two kayaks connected so they
wouldn’t drift apart. They didn’t bring life jackets with them.
They paddled to a couple of different spots around the
launch area, getting bites here and there.
After a couple of hours, they tried moving again. Sean says he felt a
rush of cold water on his back as they paddled backwards to unhinge their
anchor. The kayak had submerged and water began rushing into the boat.
Moments later, Sean was in the river. He looked to his
brother, and Alec was still in his kayak but it too had begun to take on water.
When Alec fell in, he brought with him a backpack he had in the kayak. They
tried swimming to the shore, but it was exhausting to fight the current. “Before
we hit the rapids, we were just kind of talking to each other,” Sean said.
“Once that happened … It went by so fast, but it felt so long. It was just
immense power in that water.”
Fish and Game and Marine Patrol officers noted the river’s
force during the search. Fish and Game couldn’t deploy its dive team until the
following day, after the river was slowed down and the water level dropped.
Authorities had been in contact with the state’s Dam Bureau to control the
river’s flow and aid the search.
As Sean made it closer to the bank, he felt his feet touch
the bottom. He tried to dig in for better traction, but when he did he was
pulled under the surface. “That was almost a huge mistake,” he said. “I hit a
deep pool, and I thought that was it for me. But somehow I was able to come
back up and surface.”
Just then, Sean, still moving with the current, slammed
into a large rock and instinctively wrapped his arms around it. He stabilized
himself on the rock and looked again for his brother.“Alec was floating by and
I was trying to tell him to do what I was doing,” Sean said. “I went to catch
my breath and jump onshore. Once I got there, I was just calling for him from
that spot and I wasn’t getting a response.”
Sean started walking – running – down the bank, looking for
Alec. He said he couldn’t see straight and stumbled under the exhaustion of
escaping the river. He finally dropped to the ground and began screaming for
A man walking his dog on the Sewalls Falls trail passed by
when he saw Sean, who asked if he could use his phone to call 911. At about 7
a.m. Thursday, Concord Fire responded to the call of a missing kayaker in the
Merrimack River. About 32 hours later, a diver recovered Alec’s body in 9 feet
of water. He was about 30 yards from the shore.
Authorities recover body of 20-year-old kayaker in
Merrimack River in Concord
By NICK STOICO
Concord Monitor staff
The search for a missing kayaker on the Merrimack River in
Concord ended on its second day as a diver with the Fish and Game Department
recovered the 20-year-old man’s body from the bottom of the river on Friday. Authorities
identified the victim as Alec Bronchuk of Merrimack. He was fishing with his
older brother, Sean Donahue, 24, early Thursday morning when their two kayaks
began to take on water. Both men got out of their kayaks as they began to sink
and attempted to swim with the current towards the western shoreline, according
to State Police. Neither of the men had life jackets in their kayaks.
Donahue swam to a rock about 20 feet from the shore and
eventually reached safety. He walked the shoreline searching for his brother
before finding a passerby in the area who called 911 for help.
The call was made about 7 a.m. Thursday, setting off a
search effort that involved Fish and Game as well as State Police-Marine Patrol
and Concord’s police and fire departments. Bronchuk was found about 30 yards
from shore Friday about 2:45 p.m.
Fish and Game Sgt. Geoffrey Pushee said it was a difficult
day for all involved, none more than the family of this young man. “No one
wants to see a family lose a son or a daughter or anyone,” Pushee told
reporters as the staging area near the Sewalls Falls bridge was being broken
down. “In this case, it’s a pretty close-knit family and they’re dealing with
it as best they can. I’m just happy we could bring some closure to the family.”Shortly
after Bronchuk’s body was recovered, the dive team returned to the staging area
to shed their equipment. A man walked over and hugged each of the divers.
While the search teams employed underwater cameras and
sonar devices, it was a single diver who found the body under 9 feet of water
about half a mile downstream from the Sewalls Falls Bridge boat launch where
they had set out Thursday morning. “With the river currents (Thursday) it’s
possible he drowned farther upstream and was pushed down into this deep hole,”
Pushee said. The dive crew had to wait until Friday to go in because the
river’s current was too strong Thursday. After working with the state’s Dam
Bureau to hold back water at the Franklin Falls Dam, the current slowed and the
water level dropped enough to send divers in when the search resumed early
On Thursday, the two kayaks were discovered in the middle
of the river in Concord. Some of their personal belongings had been located
earlier in the day, including what appeared to be a fishing net. Authorities
are urging all boaters to use life jackets. It is required by state law that
each boater have a wearable life jacket with them whenever they are underway.
“It’s extremely important any time of year to be wearing a
life jacket, but especially where there are still cold water conditions,
swift-moving water and very strong currents,” Pushee said. “This could
definitely have been an avoidable accident if a life jacket had been worn.”
Search launched for missing kayaker on Merrimack River