Croton River, Hurricane Irene, Westchester County, Westchester County Rafting, Rafting the Croton River, Croton River Rafting
Credit: Robert Sabo / NY Daily News / Getty Images

Around 8:45 pm, Geoff Haynes picked up his binoculars to check on Dooley, but he was gone. A moment later he heard over the police radio that Dooley was out of the trees. Croton Detective Sergeant John Nikitopoulos and his two-man dive team had been idling in their Zodiac by the shoreline downstream. When they heard the radio chatter, they hurried out into the river. Using powerful handheld searchlights, they got a visual on Dooley, who was moving downriver at about 1,000 yards in 30 seconds. He flapped his arms weakly to signal them. When they hauled him into the boat, Dooley curled up in the hull, "totally spent," Croton police lieutenant Russel Harper later said. Dooley, who’d spent close to three hours of his birthday struggling in the water, was shaking and almost unable to speak. He was admitted to the hospital with extreme exposure and hypothermia. He told police he wasn't sure whether he had lost consciousness or lost his grip. He had no idea how long he'd floated or how he made it without hitting any trees.

The day after the incident was bell-blue and sunny, and a rainbow arced over the Croton River where the rafters had put in, but elsewhere in town, a stormy backlash was brewing. Some townspeople were furious that the rafters had put so many res­cuers at risk simply to satisfy what one called "juvenile urgings." The comments sections of local news sites teemed with ugly remarks. "Score one for Darwin," somebody posted. Another cracked, "Good riddance. Minus one arrogant, reckless soul in the world."

Not helping things were certain statements that survivor Michael Wolfert made to the press. "We were not novices," he told one reporter. And when asked whether they calculated the risks of rafting the swollen river, Wolfert replied, "It's a risk we assume." But the risks of their ride were hardly confined to the men in the raft. Three volunteer firemen and a rescue swimmer nearly drowned. Helicopters came and went in dangerous winds, hovering over a heavily treed gorge. Many in the town thought the rafters should have been billed for the rescue, estimated at more than $45,000; others urged criminal prosecution.

Engel's paddling buddies were left scratching their heads. "Peter was not reckless," insists lifelong friend Gary Maltz, an internist who’d paddled the Gauley with him. "When he went on a river, he usually knew every nook and cranny. He was very safety-conscious, very smart, very rational." But the crew had violated some of the cardinal rules of whitewater paddling. They had not done a full safety walk and had shot low-head dams that they might have portaged. Most significantly, they left no margin of error – for being stranded, caught in a strainer, snagged on a tree, or thrown overboard.

Maybe they failed to give a local, suburban river the respect they'd give rivers with bigger names, fiercer reputations. Croton detective Paul Camillieri thinks it was a case of hubris. "They thought they were going for a Sunday ride. That it'd be over quickly, they’d high-five each other and then go for beers. I don’t think they really took it seriously enough." Richard Charney, who'd paddled the Colorado and whose house is near where Ceglia was rescued, maintained that the big rivers Engel had done are "known quantities." Their features and hazards are studied and discussed by paddlers who'd done them. "But that experience would not apply to the Croton at that level," he says. "At that level, it is a completely unknown quantity."