RiverDrownings 4thLd-Writethru 11-14
3 Chicago teens drown during leadership retreat
Eds: Adds comment from victim’s mother, detail on camp ownership.
AP Photo ILCA101, ILDB104, ILCHT101, ILCHT102
By CARLA K. JOHNSON
Associated Press Writer
ALGONQUIN, Ill. (AP) — Three high school students on a leadership camping retreat sneaked away from their camp beds in the middle of the night and drowned early Friday in paddle boats with floor plugs that had been removed for winter.
The boats quickly sank, dumping the teens in the swift, 42-degree Fox River.
A group of 31 boys from Chicago’s North Lawndale College Prep were at Camp Algonquin about 40 miles northwest of the city on the last day of an eight-day trip.
Chaperones were likely asleep when some of the young people launched six paddle boats into the river, fire officials said. It was not clear how many teens ended up in the water about 2 a.m., but at least one of the victims had gone in to help the others.
"Shenanigans," said John Greene, battalion chief of the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District. "That’s what it looks like."
The boats had been taken out of service for the season by having their bottom plugs removed, authorities said.
The trip was organized in conjunction with the Georgia-based leadership group VisionQuest International, said Chicago Public Schools spokesman Mike Vaughn. The school on Chicago’s West Side serves an overwhelmingly black and poor student population, aiming to prepare them to succeed in college.
"These are kids that have potential, potential to be leaders," Vaughn said.
He said the school district would investigate how the trip was organized, but it appeared to have an ample number of chaperones, including some from VisionQuest. Camp officials confirmed the number of chaperones had more than met their requirements.
VisionQuest founder Walter Earl Fluker, who attended the early days of the retreat, said his staff members were grief-stricken.
"I think teenagers and adults make terrible mistakes, innocent as they might be, we make terrible mistakes," Fluker said. "I do think in many ways they were forming the kind of community we would hope for and I hope this tragedy doesn’t prevent these young men from continuing on."
The McHenry County coroner’s office identified the students as 17-year-old Melvin Choice Jr., 18-year-old Jimmie Avant and 16-year-old Adrian Jones. The bodies were all recovered, though authorities said swift currents and debris had made it difficult.
Avant’s mother remembered her son a a gifted athlete and a generous person. Sharon Gowdy, who is out of work, said her son often tried to help her with money.
"He was so nice, so giving. Just his personality. He was good inside out. Words just can’t describe him," said Gowdy, 51.
At the Chicago school, counselors were on hand to help students, though most of them went home after hearing the news.
Student Kyra Brown, 14, paused to remember Choice.
"He read me a story that he wrote and got an ’A’ on," she said. "It was beautiful."
The McHenry County Conservation District owns the 116-acre camp and the YMCA of McHenry County leases and operates it. Like the school district, the YMCA also planned a review.
Associated Press writer Rupa Shenoy in Chicago contributed to this report.