Ricardo Ismalej Xujar in a family photo. Image: GoFundMe.com.

A local family has issued a grim warning over the dangers of water currents and undertow in seemingly calm rivers after the death of a 47-year-old man from Flanders who drowned in the Delaware River over Labor Day weekend.

After a long summer season of working hard as a carpenter, Ricardo Ismalej Xujar had planned a getaway with friends and family to enjoy nature and relax at Camp Kittatinny at the upstate Town of Barryville, a popular destination off Route 97, right on the banks of the Delaware River, bordering Pennsylvania. The group traveled from Long Island on Friday Sept. 2, loaded with mattresses, tents, food and everything they would need to spend a holiday weekend filled with fun, explained Ismalej  Xujar’s stepdaughter Mariana Gabieles.  

On Saturday, around 1 p.m, Ismalej Xujar told his wife he was going swimming in the river. Despite the fact that the water in that area is deep, Gabieles explained, as an ex-military man, Ismalej Xujar was an experienced swimmer, having swam across several rivers in Guatemala during his military training, she said. His wife told him to go ahead while she fixed something in the car. Moments after getting in the water, she saw he was calling for help.

“When he got into the river, the current started to pull him from below, he started asking for help and people thought at first that it was a joke,” said his stepdaughter. “He started screaming and my mom knew that he was not a man to play with things like that, so she started to get desperate and asked for help, but it was practically impossible to help him.”

Several people went into the water to try to save Ismalej Xujar, but a strong current threatened to drag them too, Gabieles said, and they couldn’t get close to him. Helpless and horrified, they witnessed how the water swallowed him, Gabieles said.

“After several hours of searching, they told my mother that if he wasn’t found by 8 o’clock in the evening, they would not be able to keep searching, and the searching mission would resume the next day, Sunday. But then a little dog barked and barked and it was because he was at the bottom of the river. He never floated like people normally float.”

According to a statement from the New York State Police, Ismalej  Xujar was located at approximately 6:43 p.m. at Landers Minisink Campground in the Town of Highland, and pronounced dead by a Town of Highland Ambulance Paramedic.

Gabieles said that the death of her stepfather might have been prevented if there had been proper signage warning swimmers “about the dangers of entering a large and fast-flowing river.”

“Other people have told us that more people have died there in the same place where he drowned,” she said. “My stepfather was a person who read any warning signs. If he had seen a notice indicating that there was danger there, he would never have gone swimming. There is only a sign advising people to wear a vest, but it is very hidden.”

“The other people who tried to help him could no longer do anything because the current was pulling them, one of them was almost drowning and they had to get him out, it was their life, for another who was already there. That is why we are saying  that they have to put up a sign, something, so that people know.”

A funeral service was held Sunday night at McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home in Riverhead. Gabieles said the family is preparing to send the body of Ismalej Xujar’s to his native Guatemala. 

A GoFundme was also created to help cover any expected costs that arise from the tragedy. So far, the fund has raised over $4,000, but the goal is to reach at least $20,000, Gabieles said.

Ismalej Xujar is survived by his wife and stepdaughter in the United States—where he lived for 18 years— and four daughters, who live in the state of Baja Verapaz, in Guatemala, whom he supported financially.

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Juliana Holguin is a journalist and editor of Tu Prensa Local. Her work has been recognized with six journalism awards, including the Simón Bolívar National Award from Colombia. Send her an email: juliana@tuprensalocal.com