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Two who drowned didn't get warning

The brothers hit Brandywine Creek in borrowed kayaks. Had they tried to rent, they would have learned of peril.

A search team plies the Brandywine after kayakers Christopher Miller, above left, and his brother Chad Miller drowned.
A search team plies the Brandywine after kayakers Christopher Miller, above left, and his brother Chad Miller drowned.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

In good weather, the Brandywine Creek in Chester County beckons scores of outdoors enthusiasts, who routinely dot the waterway with canoes, kayaks, and inner tubes.

On Tuesday, two brothers would have been turned away if they had tried to rent kayaks: Heavy rain had churned up the usually slow-paced creek, creating a muddy, menacing environment that prompted rental businesses to suspend operations.

Christopher Miller, 28, of Yonkers, N.Y., and the Rev. Chad Miller, 34, of Wilmington, never got to hear warnings from shop owners. They borrowed two kayaks from a friend, police said, and began a trip at Shaw's Bridge Park in East Bradford Township that quickly led to their deaths.

Debbie Brown, administrator at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where Chad Miller ministered to the congregation's missions and youths, said he would have had limited familiarity with the Brandywine.

A native of Sandwich, Ill., he moved to Delaware in July 2007 after working at churches in Illinois and Kentucky, she said.

The Miller brothers were close and had visited each other regularly since settling on the East Coast, Brown said. Their parents and a sister live in Creston, Iowa.

Brown said the church had been devastated by the loss and would suspend its 10 a.m. service Sunday to hold a memorial.

Chad Miller, who worked at the church pancake breakfast every Saturday, was scheduled to take a youth group to Guatemala this summer.

"He was a major part of this congregation," said Brown, her voice trembling. "He had a smile that would brighten up a room and he had a laugh to go with it."

Christopher Miller was equally beloved, said Rachel Damiani, director of the Tarrytown, N.Y., campus of the EF International School of English. The private school is for foreign students ages 18 to 22 who want to improve their English.

Damiani said Miller, who was "passionate about politics," had worked at the school for two years and taught a course he helped create titled Master of English - International Affairs.

She said the staff learned of the tragedy from Miller's wife, Nicole, a former employee of the school.

"It's a terrible loss. He was truly, truly an amazing person," Damiani said. "He constantly had a light shining around him."

Damiani said that Christopher Miller "cared deeply for his students," and that grief counseling would be available for them.

Michael Cotter, West Chester's fire chief, said the effort to recover Chad Miller's body concluded at 4 p.m. yesterday after foot, boat, and air searches that covered an area several miles south of the dam. "Unfortunately, we've done everything we can do," Cotter said.

West Chester Police Chief Scott L. Bohn said investigators had determined that the brothers' destination had been Brandywine Creek State Park in Delaware.

Christopher Miller's body was pulled from the creek Tuesday by rescue workers who responded to a 911 call at 1:41 p.m. from workers at Brandywine Picnic Park, a 52-acre entertainment center with rides, food, and outdoor activities nestled along the Brandywine.

Bohn said Christopher Miller was pronounced dead at Chester County Hospital a short time later.

The picnic park is a popular site for school and corporate outings, and seventh graders from Radnor Middle School were there Tuesday. The park, like other area commercial ventures, had suspended water activities at 10:20 a.m. because of rising floodwaters, according to a statement from the park.

It also stated that an employee saw the brothers approaching a dam - about a half-mile downstream from their starting point, police said - and told them to get off the river.

Douglas Eglington, a computer-science instructor at Pennsylvania State University's Berks and Media campuses and a longtime traverser of the Brandywine, said the men might not have had time to react.

"Even in calm waters, you have to watch out for that dam," said Eglington, 45, of West Chester, describing a concrete structure with a four-foot drop. "It's a known hazard that the rental companies always tell you to portage around."

Eglington has been kayaking and canoeing on the Brandywine since he was 18, he said, and has developed a healthy fear of its power during inclement weather. Although the average depth is two to four feet, some pools are eight to 10 feet - amounts that often double during storms.

According to U.S. Geological Survey data, the stream-flow level jumped more than eightfold between 6:45 and 10:45 a.m. near Downingtown, and the stream flow increased from 123 cubic feet per second to 1,010.

"It's an unfortunate situation, but they shouldn't have been out there," said Zeke Hubbard, longtime proprietor of the Northbrook Canoe Co., a popular venue for renting canoes and kayaks in West Bradford Township.

Hubbard said people with their own kayaks didn't always check the conditions. He said that it generally took 10 to 12 hours for the waters to recede, and that he didn't plan to resume operations until today.

At Brandywine Outfitters near Coatesville, the rule is to cease launching canoes and kayaks when the creek rises 18 inches above its normal level, owner Richard Rasmussen said.

"I've seen people with young kids wanting to go out," he said. "They'll say, 'Oh, my kids are good swimmers.' That has nothing to do with it. Because when a boat goes over, the water likes to hold you in."

On summer weekends, the Brandywine becomes a magnet for hundreds of folks seeking a refreshing respite from, in Hubbard's words, "the city and cell phones, and all the rest of it." Visitors float blissfully through countryside that has inspired artists, stopping for picnics or dips in swimming holes.

But the Brandywine has its hazards. There are five waterfalls along its length - four in Chester County, one in Delaware - places where the creek was dammed to provide power for the mills of colonial times. And after its waters are swollen by storms, the Brandywine can become as treacherous as the most challenging whitewater stretches of the Colorado or Youghiogheny.

"Anytime the water turns chocolate, you don't want to be out on it," Hubbard said.