Keenan: Weekend drowning deaths are wake-up call

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

Lake Minnawanna in Metamora is a small, beautiful spring-fed lake with a sandy beach on one side and a campground on the other. But last Thursday when Troy Paxton, 17, and his best friend decided to swim across the lake, the body of water became a predator, at once alluring and deadly.

Two hundred supporters showed up at a candlelight vigil Friday night for drowning victim Troy Paxton.

“It’s a beautiful beach,” Lapeer County Sheriff’s Department Det. Lt. Gary Parks said. “I used to swim there as a kid, but the trouble is you think it’s a short distance, but once you start swimming and you get fatigued, it’s a long way.”

The two teens made it about three-quarters of the way across before they began to tire. Paxton’s friend told him to try to float on his back while he went to shore for a boat. By the time he reached Paxton, he was nowhere in sight.

Authorities were dispatched to the Metamora-Hadley State Recreation Area around 3:30 p.m. Troy’s parents, Rod and Sheila Paxton of Flint, and Troy’s older sister, Holly, watched from the shore, at times, buckling over in grief.

For several agonizing hours, first responders circled one area in boats, their heads down like crows on a line. Finally after 6 p.m., Troy’s body was recovered and brought ashore.

Troy was a week shy of turning 18. He’d graduated from Kearsley High School, a proud member of the 2015 boys bowling team who became state champs his senior year. He was already enrolled at Kettering University and was going to become a mechanical engineer.

The following night, Friday, about 200 people gathered in the parking lot of Richfield Bowling Alley in Genessee Township, holding candles and trying to reconcile with the strange reality that 17-year-olds are not invincible and that open water can be lethal. The entire bowling team, dressed in uniform, stood in a line adjacent to the microphone — shaken, stoic, brave.

Coach Bart Rudledge said the turnout was evidence to how many people Troy had touched. The junior varsity coach spoke next; he’d had Troy for three years. He said Troy was like a “son for me.” “It’s going to be a few years before I can figure out how to get over this. He was super kid.”

Holly, left, and Sheila Paxton, the sister and mother of Troy Paxton.

Teammates and friends spoke about how quiet and unassuming Troy was, how his desk in his bedroom at home was filled with broken cell phones and bike brake lights he loved to fix. Sister Holly, wearing Troy’s uniform jacket, said she’d lost her baby brother, her best friend. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without him.”

Just before they lit sky lanterns, Troy’s mother thanked everyone for showing up. “He wouldn’t have liked this attention,” she said, “but I know for a fact he would have appreciated every bit of it.”

Sherry Sorsen, a longtime Paxton family friend, told a reporter: “Troy was very loyal, just a really great kid,” she said. “He was a good swimmer. He just got tired and was gone.”

Drownings like Troy Paxton’s are so commonplace the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project calls swimming deaths “a nationwide epidemic” and a neglected public health issue.

In Michigan, home to not only the Great Lakes, but a plethora of inland lakes, July and August are the highest months for drownings. This year, the project reports 27 people have drowned in the Great Lakes: 11 in Michigan, 9 in Lake Erie, 5 in Ontario, 1 in Lake Huron and 1 in Lake Superior, all since the start of the summer. There were 54 drownings in 2014.

Since two-thirds of all drowning victims are experienced swimmers, many underestimate how quickly people in the water can get into difficulty. Everything from beneath the surface hazards like sharp objects or currents to muscle cramps to water temperature can put a swimmer in danger.

When victims realize that they cannot keep their heads above water, they tend to panic and become helpless. Typically, a drowning person disappears from the surface in 20-60 seconds and the oxygen supply is cut off. Experts advise if you find yourself in trouble, flip to your back, float and follow the safest path out of the water.

Often people don’t realize they are in danger until it’s too late.

On Sunday, Thomas Kelly, 44, of Flint didn’t think of his own risk when he dove into Lobdell Lake in Linden to help two children — 6- and 7-year-old girls — who were thrown from the tube they riding on when it flipped over. On Monday, dive crews and local law enforcement recovered his body.

Surely Southfield Fire Chief Keith Rowley, 58, was not in fear for his life when he jumped off a 40-foot boat into Lake St. Clair on Friday, trying to retrieve a friend’s hat after it flew off his head. Macomb County Sheriff’s deputies reported the boat circled a couple times to get close to Rowley, but by the time those on board threw a life ring, Rowley had gone under.

His body was recovered Monday morning. The city of Southfield is in mourning, along with friends and relatives. Carolyn Krieger-Cohen, who’d been a friend of Rowley’s since elementary school, posted on Facebook: “All of us who know and love Keith are finding it impossible to wrap our minds around losing him. He is without a doubt one of the finest men I know. He has dedicated his professional life to saving the lives of others in his role as Southfield’s Fire Chief.”

The take-away is this: Our bodies of water, the Great Lakes and inland lakes, are among our greatest treasures. We can honor drowning victims like Troy Paxton, Thomas Kelly and Keith Rowley by respecting the power of open water.