“There was a very loud pop. The cable just snapped, and you could see that we started going sideways down the river,” said Ted Clarkson of Gaithersburg.
The Historic White’s Ferry, which has been taking folks back and forth across the Potomac River since the early 1800s via a cable and pulley system that hasn’t changed all that much broke free from its cable today and began floating down the Potomac with cars and passengers on board.
Montgomery County Fire Rescue Service reported the incident at 2:49 pm this afternoon. The ferry floated about 500 yards downstream. The vessel was ferrying 12 vehicles to the Maryland side of the river when the cable snapped.
MCFRS dispatched swift water boats and rescue personnel, as well as the National Park Police helicopter to the scene. However, the ferry had come to rest on the bank before their arrival and no boats needed to be launched. No injuries were reported and no vehicles ended up in the river.
“We were coming across the river, and the cable snapped,” said Poolesville resident Jeff Casella, who was returning to Maryland on the ferry with his wife Alicia and their baby girl. “The pilot gunned it, and we floated for a while until he was able to tether it to a tree. We spun around, and we bumped down a ways until we hit the bank.”
“The ferryman cranked up the engine and drove it into the bank about two or three houses down the river,” said Clarkson. “Thank goodness he was able to get the engines going and get out of the channel in the middle of river,”
Ferry passengers praised the quick actions of the ferryman and a woman who was waiting on the Maryland side to take the ferry into Virginia, who sprang into action to help the ferry pilot as he frantically attempted to get the vessel to the river banks.
Witnesses credited Potomac resident, Katherine Slover for her quick actions in running down the bank of the river and grabbing a rope thrown to her by the ferryman, and tying to a tree that allowed the ferry to come to a stop on the Maryland bank of the river.
“She was the savior. Once we hit the bank of the river, the pilot was frantically calling for help,” said Clarkson.
“She was the hero,” added Ioana Ballinger of Gaithersburg.
Once the passengers were removed from the vessel, ferry workers secured a new cable and used the ferry’s small motor to return the vessel back to its ramp and the passengers were able to return and remove their vehicles. All passengers and vehicles were safely removed from the ferry.
MCFRS spokesman Pete Piringer said that while the ferry has come loose from its cable before, this was the furthest downstream it had travelled in many years.
Shortly after 4:00 pm, Montgomery County Police said that the ferry would be closed for repairs for at least three hours.
Top: Passengers leave their cars and walk from the ferry across a ramp after the ferry broke free of its cable and floated about 500 yards downstream. Photo courtesy of Jeff Casella.
Next: Historic Whites Ferry as few people have seen it heading north on the Potomac, instead of east and west as it was brought back to the ramp area.
Next: The small motor that was used to maneuver the vessel out of the channel and to the Maryland bank to be tethered to a tree.
Photos by Germantown Pulse.