The road comes to an end and Magnuson Park begins. There's a wilderness of blackberry bushes, all rich with ripe fruit. Beyond the bushes is the parking lot, beyond the parking lot is a bank of Honey Buckets, and passing the Honey Buckets is a big, black SUV pulling an even bigger black trailer. On its back are gold letters that read: Pierce County Police Dive Team.
The police SUV parks among four other black SUVs with equally huge black trailers. It is a somber sight on an August afternoon. A hefty Pierce County police officer steps out of the vehicle and walks across the parking lot with the dead weight of diving equipment on his shoulders. He walks onto and to the end of the dock. He stands and waits. As he waits, he scans Lake Washington. The waters are choppy and cold. Boat activity is light. A float plane rises from Bothell. Because low and thick clouds cover the sky, the surface of the lake is silver and black.
Finally, a Harbor Patrol boat arrives at the dock. The Pierce County police officer with the diving equipment on his shoulders steps onto the swaying boat. Onboard, he is greeted by the two Seattle police officers. The boat steadily backs into the water, smoothly turns, and swiftly heads south at a roaring speed. From along the bank of the lake, the boat can be seen by an old woman in a wheelchair who is staring at the water with her son, by women picking berries from bushes, by a young man entering the cold lake wearing yellow swim trunks. The boat stops not too far from the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. There are other police boats in that area. Aggressive waves are making them rock above the abyss. Something important is happening out there, but it's hard to see exactly what it is from a distance. Occasionally a diver surfaces, says something to the men on the swinging boats, and resubmerges.
The young swimmer in the yellow trunks is now a dozen yards from land. He sees the police boats but thinks nothing of them. He has a slim and hairless chest. His pale skin is pronounced in the black water.
"Hello!" a stranger from the shore yells out to him and he stands and looks in his direction. "Is it cold out there?"
"Kind of. Not too bad."
"Are you swimming across the lake?" the stranger asks, pointing toward Kirkland.
"No. Just swimming a little way out."
"I must warn you, there is a dead body out there. A man drowned yesterday. That's why there are all those police boats over there."
"I was wondering about that," the young man says.
"Yes, it's not a rescue mission anymore. They're looking for a corpse... Keep your eyes open for a body. It could very well pop up here."
"Man, that's creepy," says the young man, pulling off his goggles. The stranger—okay, me—leaves him standing in the cold waters of Lake Washington.
The day before, August 5, a SeaTac man dove from a boat into the water 400 yards from Magnuson Park. He was trying to save the life of a drowning person whose boat was drifting away. But something went terribly wrong in the water: The SeaTac man suddenly disappeared and the friend he was trying to save reappeared and was rescued by another boat. It's as if the SeaTac man traded his life for the life that was about to be swallowed up by the lake.
The drowning was by no means exceptional. Just over a year ago, not far from where he vanished, the same water claimed the lives of swimmers Mary Jane Delpin and Spencer Frenette. The deaths happened not long before dusk, near Yarrow Point, which is right across the lake from Magnuson Park. Mary Jane and Spencer were on a ski boat with a third person, a teen. Feeling the need to cool off, Mary Jane dove into the water. The teen followed her. The boat began drifting away. Mary Jane started to panic and struggle with the choppy waves. As the frightened teen swam back to the boat, Spencer, like the SeaTac man, dove in to save his friend. The teen reached the ghost boat, boarded it, and threw a pair of lifejackets to Mary Jane and Spencer. But the wind blew the boat and the lifejackets away from the two, and that was the last moment they were seen as the living.
A homeowner called 911, an interdepartmental rescue mission was quickly organized, and the bodies were discovered near midnight at the bottom of the lake. "They both went down pretty quickly," Fire Lt. Kroon reported on KOMO TV, after the bodies of Mary Jane and Spencer were recovered.
I learned about the drowned SeaTac man on Monday, August 6, in the middle of writing the story you're now reading. Because he was the most recent victim, I went out to the park to investigate, made notes, and planned to type up my findings the following day. Then on Tuesday, August 7, as I was about to begin typing those notes, I learned from Officer Renee Witt that yet another person had drowned, this time near Harbor Island. "We pulled him out of the water about an hour ago," she said over the phone.
Not long ago—before both of these deaths—I met two Harbor Patrol officers on Mercer Island for a ride-along. Members of the department were scattered throughout the southern part of Lake Washington preparing for Seafair's hydroplane races, which annually attract 20,000 boats and even more drunks. The officers' hope was to have not one drowning this year; no one drowned last year, and they wanted to repeat that surprising success. (They didn't, obviously. In fact, the boat we went out on was the exact one that, five days later, picked up the Pierce County officer from the docks at Magnuson Park.)
Two white officers welcomed me onboard. "We can't give you a long ride," the first officer told me. "We just got a call that a diver found a car at the bottom of the lake."
"Is there anyone in it?" I asked.
"No, it's abandoned," he said.
"Does that happen often?"
"Yeah, divers find all sorts of things in the lake."
I took a seat next to the second officer, the driver. He's tall, sports a thick mustache, and has been with Harbor Patrol for two decades. He enjoys his job in the summer. When the sun is bright and Mount Rainier is clear, it makes up for all the rough days in winter. He explained that during summer there tend to be more accidents on the lake because more people are out boating and swimming. There are more drowning accidents in Seattle than in most other cities because, as the second officer pointed out, Seattle is the boating capital of America. "More boats per person here than anywhere else."
His boat is the second fastest in the fleet and patrols Lake Washington, Lake Union, the ship canal, and Elliott Bay. Each year, each of these bodies of water has a good share of the 24 to 26 lives that end in drowning in King County. The officers conceded that since King County's drowning-prevention czar, Tony Gomez, helped pass laws in 2000 that prohibit swimming in the canal and locks area in Ballard and clamped down on drunken boaters, the number of preventable deaths has declined. But the expression on the second officer's face didn't lighten up at all. (At the time of this ride-along, there had been 11 water deaths in the King County area so far this year. As of this writing, Harbor Patrol has another dozen bodies to go before the year is out.)
"A guy died not too long ago while diving," the second officer said. "He had his tank on upside down. Can you believe that? He is diving and he knows nothing about diving."
There's a kind of laid-backness to driving that black American male motorists have mastered. They have the back of their car seat almost touching the passenger seat behind it, one elbow sticking out of the window, and one hand smoothly turning the wheel. A little of this supreme laid-backness was evident in the second officer's manner of driving this boat. He looked very comfortable on the water.
"Officer Jackson Lone," I said to the second officer. "He died two years ago while working for Harbor Patrol."
"Yes, that was a terrible accident," the officer replied. "He is the only officer to die from drowning in the entire history of Harbor Patrol. And we have been around for as long as the city has been around." Not only is Lone the only Harbor Patrol officer in Seattle history to die on the job, he is the only officer in the history of SPD whose duty death was caused by drowning. (The dominant cause of duty death is, of course, gunfire; the second is accidental gunfire.) It was a freak accident: Officer Jackson Lone died while he and other officers were attempting to secure the ghost of a drifting tugboat on the ship canal. He slipped, his head hit the side of the police boat, and he fell into the water.
"No one saw him fall; it was so quick. The other officer had his back to him and didn't hear a thing. It happened in two minutes; he was gone just like that. It's a real tragedy," the second officer said. "Even with every precaution, every amount of safety, an accident can happen."
After a pause, he said, "Yeah, that's a reality of life. Anything can happen."
There are reasons why drowning is creepy and always has about it the mood of the supernatural. One is that it happens very quickly. One minute everything seems to be going well (a young man is happily drifting on his back); the next second, all is going wrong (the young man has a brief fight with the water and then sinks). In story after story about drowning, we are told that "it happened so quickly," "all of sudden," "in the blink of an eye," without notice by people who were very close to the sinking person. The sound of the water smothered their desperate splashing and cries—their friends were only a few feet away laughing, or talking about something silly, or drinking.
"Jeremy Johns," wrote Alexander Morrison in "Death by Drowning: Dangers of Washington Waters" [Roosevelt News, April 14, 1999], "...went for a swim in Lake Washington last June. After swimming halfway out to a buoy with some friends, he became tired. He turned around to go back, but he did not get far before his legs froze. Though not particularly asthmatic, Jeremy suffered an asthma attack brought on by overexertion in cold water.... 'There wasn't anything I could do,' remembers Jeremy. 'I thought I was going to die.'" And when you die, you fall. Always it seems as if something in the water is pulling you down. Not hypothermia, not asthma, not shock, but the water and its dark forces have a grip on your panicking body.
Another aspect of drowning that makes it creepy is that it usually happens when the swimmer least expects it. And when the swimmer least expects it is usually when he/she is having a good time on or under the water. In certain horror films, the sign that something bad is about to happen is when a couple is making out or just about to have sex—at that happy moment, the demon starts to stab and slash. Something similar happens in drowning. The lake or bay kills not when the swimmer is alert, but when he is distracted by joy and delight.
Death underwater is quick. You have two minutes before real danger strikes. At two minutes, the lights of consciousness go out, and once you're unconscious and underwater, the chances of waking up are slim. You have another three minutes before your energy-starved cells stop working; when the cells stop working, the brain stops working; and when the brain stops working, life stops working. You are dead. The bloated brain swells, water logs your body, you sink to the bottom, and stay there usually around two days.
The day before the SeaTac man dies, August 4, I'm standing on the Seacrest Park pier in West Seattle. To the left, a group of Laotian Americans are fishing. To the right, several white Americans are dragging canoes into Elliott Bay. Ahead is downtown Seattle. On the north part of the cityscape is where, just over three years ago, the body of Petra Blair was found floating below the Edgewater Hotel. South of the cityscape are the orange cranes of Harbor Island. Three days from now, on August 7, the body of an unknown person will be spotted by people on the ferry Skagit. They will see it floating not far from the loading cranes, commercial trains, and cargo ships of Harbor Island. The body will be floating faceup and fully clothed. It will be wearing a black T-shirt and dark-colored denim pants and light-colored athletic shoes. Its shirt will be tucked into its pants, and its pants will have a belt.
Just north of Seacrest Park is an area of water that two years ago swallowed whole the souls of two teens and their super-fast SUV.
Directly in front of Seacrest Park is where Granite Garver died earlier this summer, on June 30.
According to the police report, Garver went diving in the bay with two friends: a diving buddy and a spotter. They wanted to film each other underwater. While diving, a large surface roller set off by a passing cargo ship leaving Harbor Island caught Garver by surprise and pulled him under in an instant. His buddy searched for him for about 30 minutes, but came up with nothing. Another diver called 911, and the fire department's dive team arrived and found him in 15 minutes, about 50 feet from shore, below six feet of water.
"They didn't so much find him as step on him," Garver's sister, Frances Miller, told me over the phone from her home in California. "It was a freak accident. After the first wave hit him, five more waves came along and salted the water, making it difficult to see. But I'm pretty sure the first wave killed him. When I saw him at the viewing"—of his body—"he had a scar on his head, and the autopsy showed that he drowned. This means he must have died pretty quickly."
I first learned of Frances on the Northwest Diver's listserv. She wrote a long post in response to the many posts that placed the blame for her brother's death on his carelessness and inexperience. She wanted those on the list to recognize the death as an accident and nothing else. "This should not be a finger-pointing blame list," Frances wrote, "...or a 'I would have done better in this situation' brag... understand that life is fragile... at any time, for any reason, under the best of circumstances, accidents happen, loss happens." I was so moved by the humanity of her plea that I joined the list (as "mud") and contacted her.
Then we talked on the phone:
FRANCES: He did everything right. He had a buddy; he had a spotter on land. He was experienced. He kept in shape. As far as I can tell—and I could be wrong—he did everything right.
ME: What about the people he was with?
FRANCES: They were good friends with my brother, and so they were hugely devastated by his death. I mean, they were videotaping underwater. Those were his last moments of life... When I visited Seattle, they took me down to where the accident happened and spent time with me.
ME: You know, another man died in that area on July 29. A month after your brother died. His name was Wayne Hernandez. He was a diver, and his body was discovered by a diving instructor and his students.
FRANCES: I've been told that area is pretty dangerous. The waves from ships and barges can be deadly. But, really, at any time something bad can happen. Wake up in the morning and you can slip in the tub. Fall from a curb. Get hit by a car. How many stupid chances do we take every day of our lives? Things you have done a million times, at any moment, it could go wrong. There is no place that is 100 percent safe.
ME: Were you very close to your brother?
FRANCES: He was no angel. He was my older brother. And I'm not perfect, either. But he was my only brother. I lost my only brother.
ME: How would you like people to remember him?
FRANCES: He was an organ donor. I know there are people who want to keep the body intact, but that's not what my brother wanted. He wanted his organs donated to people who needed them. That was his wish. By donating those parts, he is now able to live through the people who are benefiting from his organs. He is still here. His corneas, tissue samples, bone samples—those parts are now in other people.
After the death of Officer Lone, the Harbor Patrol officer who drowned on the job, his colleagues put together a playground in his honor. You get to Officer Jackson Lone Memorial Playground from downtown Seattle by crossing the Fremont Bridge, making a left on North 80th Street, driving up to St. John School, walking into the parking lot, and turning left. The day I visit it, August 5, happens to be the SeaTac man's last day of life. In a few hours, he will see a person struggling with the water's grip of death. He will do the heroic thing and dive in. But quickly, all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, something will go very wrong and the deep will let go of his friend, get a grip on the SeaTac man, and pull him in.
Officer Lone Memorial Playground has a mock dock. The dock hangs over a sea of tire shreds that are painted blue. Approaching the dock is a jungle gym in the shape of a boat. It has a prow and slides that are meant to look like the waves of a wake on a clear, blue day. As I'm standing there, a girl (3 or 4 years old) is climbing the bars of the play boat. She climbs to the top of a slide and then swiftly falls down to the soft safety of the rubber sea. She laughs. She is very much alive.