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Mother: 5-year-old drowning victim loved to go fishing

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Susan R. Finley only recently befriended the man who tried to save her 5-year-old son when he fell into the Black River during a fishing outing Saturday.

Joined by her boyfriend and two friends, Ms. Finley and her son, Zachary, were led to the fishing spot off West Main Street by Edward Lee Whitfield III, a 47-year-old father of four. The group had been there just a few minutes when the accident happened.

The boy slipped on some rocks and fell into the river when he was down at the bank with Mr. Whitfield, his mother said. The man they barely knew immediately jumped into the raging river to save him, she said.

“I guess it was because he was a father of two little boys,” she said Monday afternoon, sitting on the front step of her High Street apartment building and trying to make sense of it all.

The boy’s body was recovered about an hour later at the racks of the Glen Park hydroelectric dam. Mr. Whitfield, who also has grown daughters in Florida and Georgia, remains missing after divers from Jefferson County’s Special Tactics and Rescue team were unable to locate him Saturday and Sunday. He is also feared to have drowned.

Watertown police said periodic searches will continue from the river’s banks.

Ms. Finley said Zachary liked to stay close to her and seemed to be right there whenever she turned around.

She described him as an outgoing little boy who liked “SpongeBob” and the TV show “Wipeout” and was learning to play the drums.

“He always loved to go fishing,” Ms. Finley said.

Earlier in the day Monday, Ms. Finley and her boyfriend, David W. Evans, went to the Head Start program at the Community Action Planning Council of Jefferson County to talk to his teachers about what had happened. They were given some photos, recent artwork and a planting he had done in class.

Programs were canceled for the day to let the other children get one-on-one counseling from staff members, they said.

So far, the toughest part has been having to tell Zachary’s three brothers — Michael, 14; Jarad Finley, 9, and Tyler Finley, 6 — about what happened, she said.

“They’re taking it pretty hard,” she said.

It also has been difficult to hear that people on social media are blaming her for her son’s death.

“They’ve been saying terrible things,” neighbor Corline McConnell said.

Since the accident, Ms. Finley has been unable to stay in her apartment because it’s too upsetting to see Zachary’s toys and other belongings, she said.

On Monday, the boy’s father, Randall McKinley, who served at Fort Drum until 2006 and left the Army on April 22 after being stationed in El Paso, Texas, was still trying to figure out how he was going to find the money to come to Watertown and attend Zachary’s funeral Wednesday.

He blames himself for not being in Watertown to take care of his son and possibly save him from the tragedy, Ms. Finley said.

“I just want to get there,” he said by telephone.

Ironically, Ms. Finley’s best friend’s boyfriend, Lorenzo Cobb, recently started calling the little boy “Peanut,” a nickname he shared with the man who unsuccessfully tried to save him.

“Little Peanut and Big Peanut,” Ms. McConnell said. “And now the two of them are in heaven.”

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