Family, friends react to drowning
Special to the Sky-Hi News
A briefing about the official response to the Lake Granby drowning will be conducted at 7 p.m. Monday, July 13, in the community room of the Grand Lake Fire Department. The public is welcome.
“There was never a day in Chris’ life that I didn’t talk to him,” recalls Dee Mullinex of her son, Christopher Eugene.
But all of that would change on her birthday, Friday, July 3, when instead of Chris joining the family in celebration, the family would come together to search for him after he disappeared into Lake Granby.
Chris had taken advantage of the beautiful summer afternoon to go boating, fishing and swimming with friends. However, according to the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, after a jump into waters that should have been safe at a 40 to 50 foot depth, Chris never resurfaced.
His body would not be recovered until after three days of searching and waiting on the part of family, friends and community.
Chris’ brother Jake would be the first one notified by friends who were also boating on the lake. He received a call at about 2:15 on Friday that something had happened.
Jake would be among the first to be out on the water searching for his brother and would continue with his wife Cody in all daylight hours throughout the weekend. At one point, family and friends had seven boats on the lake, coordinating their own search and rescue efforts in the face of what seemed to them like little official support.
They would discover that Grand County does not have its own resources for deep-water rescue. Instead, resources and training, according to first-responders, is geared to surface and swift-water rescue efforts.
“My son, Chris’ brother, has been out there for four days looking for his brother’s body,” Dee said on Monday, “that shouldn’t be the way it’s done.”
She expressed surprise and concern that the resources necessary for this kind of emergency would not be available in a county where so much tourism and activity revolves around the water. She also described her gratitude for all of the community members who had come together to help.
“Everyone is out there looking, because Chris would have been out there looking for someone else,” she says. “That’s the kind of person he was.”
Dee, along with Chris’ father Rick and aunt Laura Summers describe Chris, a 2002 graduate of Middle Park High School, as a generous, loving individual.
With tears in his eyes, Rick recounts how Chris was the kind of person to turn around to help someone on the side of the road.
“Remember,” Laura recalls, “we couldn’t even take him to Denver when he was little.”
“He wanted to help every homeless person he saw,” explains Dee.
And this description clearly explains the number of people who gathered at Stillwater Campground, south of Grand Lake, throughout the weekend to help and support. It also explains the frustration felt by family and friends while the search dragged on, delaying their mourning and healing.
However, according to official accounts, much that was done and, in fact, some very fortunate circumstances helped minimize what could have been a much slower and more difficult recovery.
Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin and Ray Jennings, director of Grand County EEMS, both indicated that responders were on the water within 15 minutes of the initial dispatch.
Also, while it is true that Grand County does not have any deep-water rescue resources, it happened that Colorado Parks and Wildlife had two boats on the lake on Friday for a scheduled boating patrol. The unit, headed by Brian Sandy, travels around the state and is only in Grand County a couple times a year.
One of the boats was equipped with a sonar system, which they were able to deploy upon being asked to assist by the Sheriff’s Office on Friday.
That sonar equipment, including an additional towed sonar that CPW brought up on Saturday would be integral in the search efforts. The sonar was used to narrow the search throughout the weekend.
But it would not be until Sunday afternoon that a narrow-enough focal area would be defined that a dive team from Summit County Search and Rescue could be called in.
Mark Watson of Summit SAR explained that diving in high-altitude lakes is a “very high risk situation.” Visibility underwater is low, estimated at about 2 feet in the depths of Lake Granby. Additionally, underwater topography, sunken objects and altitude-related concerns all make it dangerous for divers. For the sake of safety search divers won’t go in until sonar has discovered the likely object of a search.
In this case, Summit also brought a side-mounted sonar on Monday and it was this equipment that finally located Chris about mid-day in an area “well to the north of the original focal site,” according to CPW’s Sandy.
Watson expressed compassion for the family and the anxiety inherent in the waiting time but recalls a similar incident about six or seven years ago on Lake Dillon where recovery efforts took over a week. The positive, he says, that came out of that event was that funds were raised to purchase and train on the sonar equipment that helped find Chris on Monday.
And it is this end that the Mullinex family would like to see as the “legacy of Chris’ tragedy.”
“Dee and the rest of the family would like to express such gratitude for the overwhelming response from the community,” says Laura. “People came out to put their boats in the water, stood with us in the rain, and brought us food. Delia Bell brought her fifth-wheel to keep us out of the rain and one person brought us a package of new socks for our wet feet. And churches were putting us on their prayer chains, sending prayers for Chris’ recovery and our family’s healing.”
“But we don’t want another family to go through this.”
By Monday afternoon they had already established the Christopher Mullinex Fund for Water Rescue in cooperation with the Grand Foundation. They were at the Board of County Commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday morning, asking for funds and resources.
They were told by Commissioner James Newberry that the county has funds for water rescue, but has discovered a lack of communication and coordinated planning.
“Better communication would have been really helpful,” Laura continues. “We didn’t really know what the sheriff’s office was doing for the first couple of days, and Dee didn’t meet the sheriff until Sunday.”
Schroetlin said “communication breakdown is a fault of crisis in general.” In this case, he added, so many people had gathered with the best intentions to help, but “there were so many different people speaking on behalf of the family that we didn’t know who was who at first.”
He indicated that in the future he would designate, early on, someone from the crisis-response team to act as primary liaison and determine a primary individual the family would like to use for communication purposes.
As it is, because of the enormous community response and involvement, the Sheriff’s Office plans on holding a community de-brief within the next week.
“We want to answer questions, help the community understand the process, the resources, and the decisions that were made,” Shroetlin said.
The family hope that this will lead to other changes in the system, including a clearer water-response plan, greater resources, and more skilled training here in county.
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