Update: Two brothers found dead in South Bowers Beach waters

Delaware State Police Public Information Officer Heather Pepper makes a statement about two people who drowned in South Bowers Beach on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

SOUTH BOWERS BEACH — A pleasure-seeking visit turned tragic Tuesday afternoon when two out-of-state swimmers were overcome by strong Murderkill River currents and then found dead approximately 20 hours later, police said.

The body of Philadelphia resident Kevin George Jr., 21, was located at around 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, followed by his sibling Zion George, 20, of Tennessee, nearby around 15 minutes later, Delaware State Police spokeswoman Senior Cpl. Heather Pepper said. They had originally entered the Delaware Bay during low tide before it changed and they were pulled into the river, according to police.

Two other companions were rescued as well, police said.

According to Cpl. Pepper, the visitors “just wanted to get away for the day and they found through the computer that South Bowers was a nice, quiet, family area,” Cpl. Pepper said.

“Unfortunately they (weren’t) very familiar with the tides, the surrounding waters and how quickly tides can rise …”

Fishing in the area at the time, Michael Hignutt said he entered the water and tried to reach the three swimmers in distress just after 3 p.m., but continued to fall behind due to the current’s strong pull.

Mr. Hignutt said he managed to pull one swimmer back to shore with one arm before then returning to the water to try to reach the George brothers.

“I got to within about 1,000 to 2,000 feet of them but they were moving away too quickly,” the South Bowers Volunteer Fire Company assistant chief said.

“I could tell one was fighting with the other (flailing his arms). He was trying to get a hold of him and I think what happened was they both went down at the same time and I lost sight of them.

“I didn’t have any gear to keep going, I was fighting the current myself …

“I was bouncing up and down over the waves trying to keep an eye on them but when I lost sight of them I just knew they were gone.”

Mr. Hignutt said he returned to shore to rest after navigating against the current on an angle, but then saw Kevin George’s 20-year-old girlfriend from Philadelphia jump in as well.

“No sooner had I gotten there than she bailed into the water hysterically and got into the current herself,” Mr. Hignutt said. “She began struggling so I swam out and got her and brought her back to shore.

“I tried to get her calmed down as much as I could. It was just natural because she had just seen it all unfold.”

The trouble began when the brothers and a 20-year-old Philadelphia man began swimming in an area south of sandbags, Mr. Hignutt said. He was with his cousin Timothy Smith at the time after finishing an ambulance shift at the Carlisle Fire Company in Milford.

“I noticed these (people) walk by and ask if I had been catching fish and I said ‘No, I just got here,’ ” Mr. Hignutt recounted.

“We went on about fishing and they went on to the south end of the beach on the south side of the sandbags. As I was fishing later on I noticed that they were out in the water.

“They were out on the good side where they should have been and (I) went back to fishing and just some glimpse out of the side of my eye that made me turn my head that way and I noticed they (were in a bad area where they could get swept out).”

Within five minutes or less, Mr. Hignutt said he heard screaming and realized the three swimmers were struggling. He laid his fishing pole in the water as he and Mr. Smith headed toward the sandbags. He was able to radio 911 for help in the process before entering the water, he said.

“They were pretty well out at that time,” he said. “They let me know they were in distress …”

Search operations unfold

A wide array of first responders arrived as a search and rescue operation commenced, Cpl. Pepper said. The search was discontinued at 9 p.m. Tuesday due to darkness, then began again at 9 a.m. Wednesday as a search and recovery mission, she said. The bodies were discovered in tides that were eight feet lower than when the incident began, police said.

“I believe that in talking to the detectives and everyone involved that they had used every resource, every tool possible that they could looking for these individuals,” Cpl. Pepper said.

“So at that point that’s why they knew today coming back that they were going to be continuing to search for the individuals.”

Kevin George’s body was found by a fisherman and Zion George’s by a South Bowers VFC vessel, with a DSP Dive Team executing recovery efforts, Cpl. Pepper said.

Besides South Bowers, other fire departments responded from Bowers Beach, Frederica, Magnolia, Little Creek, Leipsic, Milford and New Castle County, along with volunteer scuba diving teams from Sussex County fire departments, United States Coast Guard, and the Kent County Paramedics.

While Mr. Hignutt said he and other friends swim in the area, that’s only because of their experience with the water.

“If you’re not a good swimmer and (unless you) know what you’re doing it’s not recommended to be in that north side of the sand bags (near that jetty),” he said.

The fire company has previously experienced safety issues in the area Mr. Hignutt said.

“We had a conversation here this morning after we got back,” Mr. Hignutt said. “We’ve fixed a hole down there when we fell in during a couple of alarms, and we went ahead and purchased the stone and filled it in and fixed it.

“This morning we were talking of some signs down there, of us as a fire company looking to just to make people aware of how dangerous it is.”