The New Milford pond, where a teenager drowned trying to retrieve a ball last month, has been properly maintained based on a recent inspection, an Environmental Protection Department spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
A DEP inspector found no “observable problems and/or maintenance issues” with Hardcastle Pond during a visit to the district’s property Friday, said Caryn Shinske, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Clinton Ajith, an 18-year-old student at New Milford High School, died April 22 after wading into the water to retrieve a soccer ball for children playing nearby. His body was recovered about three hours after the 911 call that night.
The pond, created in the 1960s or early 1970s, acted as a stormwater retention basin to alleviate chronic flooding in the area, Shinske confirmed. It is situated between an apartment complex and the Hackensack River.
Because New Milford is a “Tier A” community due to its population density, it must ensure “appropriate long-term cleanup, operation, and maintenance of all community-owned or operated stormwater systems,” Shinske said.
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Hardcastle Pond is inspected by New Milford public works workers during park maintenance, sometimes weekly or daily depending on the time of year, Shinske said. The county conducts two formal inspections of the pond annually as part of minimum maintenance standards for its stormwater systems, she said.
New Milford Police Captain Kevin Van Saders said he recalled no other incidents at the pond during his tenure. In 1976, three police officers rescued two boys who had fallen into Hardcastle Pond while trying to cycle across the ice, according to news reports.
At the time of Ajith’s drowning, a neighbor had described the muddy banks of the pond as quicksand because it can grab a person’s limbs once they are ankle-deep.
Despite this, the pond is a popular spot for anglers and has hosted fishing derbies for children.
In recent years it has held a memorial service for victims of drug abuse, with family and friends placing floating candles on the water. It has been the site of community clean-ups with dozens of volunteers picking up rubbish along its banks and hauling larger items like some shopping carts in years past when an A&P supermarket operated next to the pond.
Ajith, who wanted to study criminal justice at Montclair State University in the fall, immigrated to the United States with his family in 2012. Friends described him as a humorous and kind young man who was in his high school’s band and musical theater company.
A GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $97,000 for the family as of Wednesday morning.
Any body of water can be dangerous
Lyndhurst Fire Chief Nick Haggerty, one of the divers who helped recover Ajit’s body, was involved in dive rescues across North Jersey.
When a dive team is needed in North Jersey, the Lyndhurst Fire Department’s dive rescue team is almost certainly on hand. The Lyndhurst dive team, along with the Wallington, Oradell and Mahwah firefighting teams, who are all volunteers, are part of the North Jersey Regional Scuba Task Force established by Bergen County in 2018.
These teams all receive the same dive training, allowing teams to collaborate on dives if necessary.
“Everybody’s on the same page,” Haggerty said.
As these are the only four dive teams in the county, they are usually required outside of their respective communities. The task force is dispatched by either the county or the city itself if it is nearby.
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Haggerty, who said the team is called out between 14 and 25 times a year, has been involved in numerous dives in North Jersey and also at Hardcastle Pond and said there is no body of water more dangerous than others. As a member of the dive rescue team, Haggerty said he’s been on almost every waterway in the area, including Passaic and Morris counties.
“Basically, if you dive in the water in New Jersey, [it’s like] Go into a closet with the lights off and close your eyes,” he said. “Any body of water around here is dangerous.”
Although it was still light when Ajit entered the water, it was dark by the time the dive team recovered his body three hours later.
As well as being a firefighter and rescue diver, Haggerty is also a Lyndhurst Police Officer. Diving for corpses isn’t a pleasant experience, but as a first responder, he’s mentally prepared for the ill-fated assignment.
“You’re dealing with life,” he said. “You will see incidents that are not pleasant to see.”
Liam Quinn is a breaking news reporter for NorthJersey.com. Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest news straight to your inbox.