BY MICHAEL WALTON firstname.lastname@example.org and ANGIE JACKSON email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Conflicting accounts of efforts to save a drowning student emerged as classmates mourn Traverse City West Senior High School junior Owen Williamson.
Williamson, 17, and about 10 others stopped at the Twin Lakes Park off Long Lake Road on May 31 around 4 p.m. for a quick dip before a graduation party.
The majority of the group swam from the main beach to another beach area, but Williamson and two other boys who were not strong swimmers stayed behind in the water where they could stand.
Emma Winowiecki, who graduated from West this week, and the other swimmers walked back to Williamson’s location along a trail when they heard a friend exclaim that Williamson had disappeared.
“At first, as they were yelling before (rescue workers) were there, I knew I couldn’t do anything,” Winowiecki said. “It was just kind of all a blur, but the second the (rescue workers) came I snapped into action.”
Another student swam out and found Williamson submerged in water about 20 to 30 feet offshore, where the lake bottom steeply drops off. She managed to pull him to the surface, and then received help from other members of the high school group who tread water as they held Williamson.
Emergency responders gave one student a life jacket to swim out and strap to Williamson. Rescue workers also had Winowiecki and another person swim out with an inflatable raft, Winowiecki said.
“I just know we were very scared when we were doing it,” she said. “More of us could have gone under. We don’t know how to save people. We were all in shock.”
Winowiecki and another person lifted the unconscious Williamson’s torso and arms onto the inflatable raft. Rescuers pulled the raft in by a rope and administered CPR as soon as he was ashore. But it was too late.
Williamson was transported by helicopter to Munson Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Winowiecki said she and her friends are grateful for rescue workers’ efforts to save Williamson, but she said it was unclear why first responders did not swim the rescue gear out to the students or attempt to retrieve Williamson themselves.
Officials’ accounts of what happened at the lake differ.
Grand Traverse sheriff’s Capt. Dave Meachum, referring to an incident report, said two people volunteered to swim the raft to Williamson.
“They must’ve been already in the water and they just grabbed onto it and went with it,” Meachum said. “Whether they were told to or they volunteered, it is what it is.”
Long Lake Township Battalion Chief John Brown said a firefighter arrived on scene first. He got in the water to swim a rope out, and deputies arrived shortly after with an inflatable raft, Brown said.
“What I heard was (the firefighter) swam the raft and rope out so he could retrieve him. If there were other people assisting him, I don’t know,” said Brown, who arrived as rescue efforts were in progress.
Grand Traverse Rural Fire Department Acting Chief Michael Stinson said firefighters generally don’t ask bystanders to enter the water to help a victim.
“Unless the person is trained and has the proper life-saving equipment available, we tell them do not get in the water,” Stinson said.
Students and the community at large continued to grieve this week for a student known as a talented singer and actor.
Moments of silence were held during the West and Traverse City Central High School graduation ceremonies Sunday. West students also observed a moment of silence Monday morning. Many of the school’s new graduates returned to take part in the gesture, West Principal Joe Tibaldi said.
Hundreds of students similarly gathered in Traverse City Monday night for a memorial service in Williamson’s honor. Winowiecki said donations collected during the memorial will go to Williamson’s family, who could not be reached for comment.
Tibaldi said he was proud of the way students reacted to the tragedy.
“I think this group is an usually close group,” he said. “That makes them want to relive memories and work through this together.”