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Victim of Neuse River drowning tried to save friend

Two men who drowned in the Neuse River early Wednesday were identified as John Taylor, 21, and Michael McDowell, 20.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Family members say their loved one drowned trying to save the life of a friend.

Police say three men went swimming Wednesday morning in the murky Neuse River.

One survived, the bodies of two others were later pulled from the waters off New Bern Avenue in Raleigh.

At about 2 a.m. Wednesday, three men swam across the river and walked to the Milburnie Dam.

Just before 3 a.m., the men began to swim back. When one of the men called out for help, the other two men swam out to help but couldn't get to him. Only one man made it out of the water.

“The gentleman that called us had been diving under the water trying to find his friend to see if he could find him underwater. When he resurfaced he didn't see his original friend or the friend who went in to rescue him,” Jeff Hammerstein, Wake County emergency services chief, said.

The men who drowned were later identified as John Brian Taylor, 21, and Michael Patrick McDowell, 20.

"He just didn't get back. He didn't make it,” said Crystal Williams, McDowell's sister.

McDowell's family said he drowned trying to rescue Taylor.

"I still don't believe it is true now. Even after I have seen the body come out and everything,” said William Riley, McDowell's father.

The surviving swimmer called 911.

"I had two friends swimming with me in the Neuse River and they didn't come up,” the unidentified man told a 911 dispatcher.

Riley said McDowell was athletic and a very good swimmer.

"He could swim. He could swim laps. I have seen him swim laps. Stay under water long. There had to be something, you know. There must be a real current to pull him under,” Riley said.

McDowell was also a star running back at East Wake High School and graduated a few years ago, his father said.

"He was just a good kid, very good kid," Williams said of her brother.

Nancy Leatherwood, a family friend of McDowell, said the section of the Neuse River the men were visiting is a popular nighttime hangout.

“It is very dark down there, you can't see (and) that's part of the problem,” Leatherwood said. “I wish they'd lock that place up there at night because of the fact people do go out there."

The park is only open from sun up to sun down. There are large, metal gates and chains to keep people out at night. However, officials with Raleigh Parks and Recreation said the gates are seldom closed, because there is no gate keeper.

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Adam Owens, Reporter
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