When the Waters Yield Macabre Secrets
In any standard lexicon, the term “floater” refers to a few whimsical images of nature: a gull on the breeze, a passing cloud.
But in police parlance, it means something more macabre: a human body that has bobbed to the water’s surface.
And spring is the time when the phenomenon is on full display.
So far in April, the Police Department’s Harbor Unit has fished three bodies from the 150 square miles of water they patrol in the five boroughs of New York. Only four bodies were recovered in the three previous months. Last year, the Harbor Unit officers fished out nine bodies in April, May and June, but three in January, February and March.
According to figures from the city’s medical examiner’s office, 20 of the 31 bodies found floating in New York’s waterways last year emerged in the months from April through August.
“The numbers seem to support that in the springtime we have a higher incidence of recovering floaters,” said Deputy Inspector David T. Driscoll, who has been the unit’s commanding officer for two and a half years.
In the winter, he explained, the cold water temperature slows the decomposition of a body. As the temperature rises in the spring, decomposition speeds up, producing gases that make the body buoyant and bring it to the surface.
The recent warm, sunny weather raised temperatures in local waters to 50 on Saturday and to 54 degrees by Wednesday, he said.
Those who work the waterways around the city — the Coast Guard officers and the fishermen, the ferry operators and recreational boaters — are often the ones who alert police units to the sighting of a body.
When the call comes, the radios of the Harbor Unit crackle and their launches push off to the site.
On Friday, at 12:50 p.m., the body of a man in his 30s, dressed in a black leather jacket and blue jeans, was discovered near the Williamsburg Bridge, Inspector Driscoll said. The remains were taken to Pier 11, and the First Precinct is investigating, he said.
On Saturday, the body of a man in his 30s, clad in a black shirt and blue jeans, surfaced in the Harlem River near 155th Street, the police said. And at 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday, another body — of a man in his 40s — rose up in the East River near Pier 42.
The rite of spring occurs elsewhere, as well.
On Wednesday, the body of a 21-year-old man who had been missing from the Albany area since Christmastime was discovered by a fisherman in the Hudson River around Coxsackie, the authorities said. The body was identified as that of Joshua Szostak, who was last seen on the night of Dec. 23; his cellphone was later found at the Port of Albany. The police are trying to determine how Mr. Szostak wound up in the river.
Officials often hope the bodies will provide answers to some longstanding mysteries.
“There’s people that went missing,” said Ellen S. Borakove, a spokeswoman for the city medical examiner’s office, which handles the autopsies. “There are a lot of different things.”
Inspector Driscoll said the surfacing of the bodies was affected by “a lot of variables” besides water temperature and body decomposition.
The depth at which a body is submerged plays a part, since deeper water is colder and not so susceptible to sunshine and atmospheric changes. Some areas have quickly changing tides or currents where the water moves faster than in other areas. The configuration of the riverbed or harbor bottom might play a part in how quickly a submerged body becomes dislodged and rises.
The inspector said his officers had special training in bringing the floaters aboard. “We bring them to land, and they are processed from there,” he said.
By AL BAKER