Friends hold vigil for Lake Superior drowning victim

Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
Message to Jeffery
Lindsay Ames, 12, of Duluth writes a message on a balloon during a vigil for Jeffery Watson Tuesday evening in West Duluth. Watson, who was rescued after being underwater for about 30 minutes Monday in Lake Superior, was taken off life support Tuesday afternoon. Friends released balloons with handwritten messages to Watson at the vigil in West Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

Neighborhood friends of Jeffery Carlos Watson Jr., held a quickly planned memorial on Tuesday evening for the 13-year-old boy who died earlier in the day after he was disconnected from life support.

About a dozen kids and a few parents gathered on the lawn at Fairmont Apartments in West Duluth to remember Watson, who never recovered after a swimming accident Monday afternoon on Lake Superior. They wrote messages to their friend on balloons and had candles they planned to light when the wind went down. There were messages written in chalk on the sidewalk. Alexis Dietz had printed tributes to her friend with marker on her arm: “RIP Jeffrey,” “Jeffrey we (heart) you,” “Jeff Jeff Jeff Jeff Jeff.”

“I just can’t believe it,” she said.

Watson was swimming Monday afternoon with a friend near the old concrete structure called the cribs, or Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum, just off Duluth’s Lakewalk when he went under and didn’t resurface. Rescuers recovered Watson after he’d been underwater for at least 30 minutes. He was taken by ambulance from Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota-Minneapolis on Tuesday morning, Essentia Health spokeswoman Kim Kaiser said.

Watson’s father, Jeffery Watson Sr., said Tuesday afternoon he had made the decision to take his son off life-support.

“He has no chance of survival. His organs are shutting down,” Watson said. “He never regained consciousness. I don’t want him to suffer.”

Gabriel Green, pastor at Church of Restoration in Duluth, traveled to the Twin Cities to be with the family Tuesday afternoon.

“They’re waiting for me to get down there so I can pray over his body,” Green said.

Watson’s family moved to Duluth from Chicago during the middle of the past school year, Green said.

“They became active members of my church,” Green said. “They always rode with me to church. … This is heartbreaking.”

Dietz said she walked with Watson Jr. from the bus stop at the Holiday Center toward Canal Park on Monday. They split up when Watson went to meet up with a friend. Later, back at the bus stop, Dietz said she heard sirens. She didn’t know until she got home that they were for Watson, she said.

Friends described Watson as funny and outgoing. He liked to take funny pictures of himself and post them on Facebook. He spent a lot of time at Fairmont Apartments and charmed his friends’ parents.

“He got to be part of our family,” Alexis’s mom Angie Dietz said. “He called me mom.”

He wasn’t a strong swimmer, his friends said, he just liked to do things. Until emergency responders were on the scene Monday, some of the kids thought Watson was pulling a prank, Dietz said.

“He was super funny and the sweetest guy ever,” said Michelle Martz, one of the organizers of the gathering. She remembered Watson tackling her in the apartment hallway. The tall teen — his friends estimated he was taller than six feet — would give her piggy back rides.

“He liked to put a smile on everybody’s face,” said Christian Maldonado, 13. “He was fun to be around. Anytime you’d be around him and you’d be sad or depressed, he’d bring a smile up.”

Kayla Wall, 13, called Watson her best friend. They met at Morgan Park Middle School. She said they liked to hang out and walk around and talk. He was friends with everyone, Wall said. Her mother, Jennifer Wall, described the duo as singing, dancing and acting goofy.

“He had a mind of his own,” Kayla Wall said. “I don’t want to believe it.”

Fifteen-year-old Aamir Phillips said he was with Watson when he started struggling in the water. He said he and Watson had run into each other and decided to swim out to the cribs. Watson swam out first and made it to the structure, but on his way back Watson started struggling because he was getting cold, Phillips said.

Phillips, a Denfeld student, said he jumped in and helped Watson get to the rocks. “He said he was OK.”

Phillips then swam out to the cribs. When he got there, he said Watson’s friends were shouting at him that Watson had gone under the water and needed help.

Phillips said that as he began searching, someone else from shore jumped in and began to help. He still didn’t know Tuesday who that person was.

Phillips said he went under the water about seven or eight times for anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute searching for Watson, but all he found at the bottom of the lake were leaves, grass and weeds, and the water was too dark to see anything.

“I tried to help him,” Phillips said. “But I didn’t know where he was.”

When rescuers came to the scene, they told him to get out of the water.

In cases of younger people falling into cold water, a phenomenon called the mammalian dive reflex sometimes puts a near-halt to the body’s systems — including breathing — and allows a person to survive for a time under water. Knowledge of that reflex gave friends and family hope that Watson could recover.

“I felt that he was still alive,” Phillips said of his rescue attempts. “I wasn’t thinking that he died. I just kept thinking cold water (was keeping him alive).”

It was about 4:15 p.m. when Watson’s friends on the shore called 911, and crews from the Duluth Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard, St. Louis County Sheriff’s deputies, St. Louis County Rescue Squad and Duluth police arrived within minutes.

Rescuers used boat poles, grappling hooks and a remotely operated vehicle with a camera to help locate Watson.

Dave Phillips, St. Louis County undersheriff and an expert in underwater search and rescue efforts, said the water was 6 to 12 feet deep at the site but was murky because of recent rains and wind.

The “mausoleum” is a popular spot for teens and others on warm days to climb and then jump into Lake Superior, just off the popular Lakewalk along the waterfront. The cribs originally were built in 1919 for an unloading pier for sand and gravel but were abandoned in 1922 after Lake Superior’s storms rendered it unusable.

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