NORTH COVE — A young Snohomish County man who disappeared while swimming in North Cove on June 11 is presumed dead.
Connor Kim Le, 20, of Snohomish County, disappeared while rescuers were trying to reach him, Chief Criminal Deputy Pat Matlock of the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office said on Monday afternoon.
The investigation is still underway, Matlock said, but a dispatch record and the responding deputy’s preliminary report provide some basic details of the incident.
A dangerous place to swim
According to a social media profile, Le was a student at Everett Community College. He was apparently staying with friends from Marysville and Lake Stevens in a vacation home in the “Washaway Beach” area, Matlock said. At some point on Sunday evening, Le and two or three of his friends — all men in their early 20s — decided to go swimming. They went into the water shortly before low tide, when waves were about three feet tall.
Just before 7 p.m. on Sunday evening, Pacific County 911 dispatchers received a call from a woman who said a man was struggling in the water near Willow Lane. The woman said one of his friends was going into the water to try to help him.
Like much of North Cove, Willow Lane is subject to the severe erosion that has already destroyed several streets and dozens of homes. The constantly changing beach conditions, debris, remote location and powerful current make for extremely dangerous swimming conditions, Matlock said.
A fast response
A PCSO deputy was already in the area, so he was able to respond quickly. He spoke with the reporting party and called the Coast Guard, which dispatched a helicopter and a boat. According to the deputy’s report, once the swimmers were well away from shore, the combination of cold water, fatigue and a strong rip current made it difficult for them to make it back to the beach. The other men made it back, but Le struggled to make any progress toward the shore.
“He swam out too far,” Matlock said.
Initially, the deputy could see Le, roughly 150 yards offshore. When the Coast Guard helicopter arrived, he used his radio to guide the pilot towards Le. The helicopter personnel spotted Le, and tried to direct the arriving boat to the right spot. However, by that point, Le had been in the water for about an hour. At the time, air and water temperatures were both in the mid-50s. According to a Coast Guard publication, most people can only survive about one or two hours in those conditions.
After about 20 minutes, the deputy saw Le disappear beneath the water. A person in the helicopter reported that Le was “clearly underwater and not moving.”
Just as the rescuers in the boat located Le, the tide turned, and quickly dragged him out of sight.
“The tide was shifting, and I think [Le] submerged more. It got to where they couldn’t find him, Matlock said. “They continued to search until about 10, and then ceased due to lighting conditions.”
Coast Guard personnel said they would resume the search on Monday morning. As of mid-morning on June 13, Le’s body was still missing.
Le’s death involved several factors that appear to be common in local beach drownings. A 2014 Chinook Observer analysis found that virtually all people involved in local fatal or near-fatal incidents are from out of town. Most come from inland communities, an indication that lack of knowledge about ocean swimming conditions may be a major contributor to these incidents. The majority of victims are male. “Tween,” teen and young-adult males are especially vulnerable. Swimmers are most likely to run into trouble when the tide is changing and waves are relatively small. None of the victims in the Observer analysis were wearing life jackets.
Additionally, witnesses frequently wait 20 minutes or more to call 911. Some survivors and witnesses have said this was because they were not aware that emergency responders were able to help with beach rescues. More often, people say they did not call 911 until after their own rescue efforts failed.
Don’t wait to get help
Drowning experts and local rescuers say witnesses who believe someone is struggling in the water should call 911 immediately. They should watch the victim, and focus on trying to describe their appearance and location, rather than trying to rescue them on their own.
Observer archives dating back to the 1930s document dozens of incidents in which would-be rescuers ran into trouble, or even died while trying to help struggling swimmers. For example, in 1957, Gene Bolstad — the Washington State trooper for whom Bolstad Avenue is named — tried to rescue two young men from a powerful rip current in Long Beach. Bolstad, a former athlete and lifeguard, drowned, along with an 18-year-old boy from Cottage Grove, Oregon.