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'It's just kind of sad right now': Friends recall 13-year-old who drowned at Lake Elmo

'It's just kind of sad right now': Friends recall 13-year-old who drowned at Lake Elmo

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Classmates of a Castle Rock middle-schooler who drowned Thursday at Lake Elmo State Park rode their bikes to the lake to enjoy the sun and push away the tragedy from the day before. 

Deputy Yellowstone County coroner Cliff Mahoney said Friday that Christian James Wilson-Gartside, 13, died of drowning.

Darrion Zavla, 14, still dripping from a swim in the lake, described what he had heard from his friends about Christian's death.

He said Christian and another boy had swam toward a buoy marking the swimming area's boundary.

Darrion said Christian had gotten tired, and the friend he was swimming with tried to get to him, but ended up having to turn to shore. The boy Christian was with told police he noticed Christian struggling and tried to help but couldn't and swam to shore to alert someone.

Dishon Wettsit, 13, said he had come to the lake Thursday to swim and, from the shore, watched as the rescue team recovered Christian's body. 

The boys took some guesses at who Christian was swimming with that day, but stopped after a moment, one saying, "it doesn't matter really."

Search and rescue crews found the teenager's body after about an hour.

Gage Mcauliffe, 13, who played baseball with Christian last year, said Christian really liked baseball and was a really nice guy. Gage said he didn't like talking about it as he straddled his bike, occasionally glancing out at the water.

"It's just kind of sad right now," Gage said. "Cause it's like the second kid in two weeks who has died."

Gage was referring to Tristan Hunt, 5, who was pulled from a water-filled culvert and taken to a hospital but could not be revived on May 29. 

Gage said he lives next to the ditch where the boy died and goes by it every day. The culvert crosses Placer Drive near the road's intersection with Teton Avenue.

Gage said he'd heard about Christian's death through SnapChat. 

"Everyone was sending out like, 'R.I.P' Christian, and I was like, oh, you know," Gage said. "I knew he must be dead."

Christian had just finished seventh grade at Castle Rock Middle School.

"It's just really sad 'cause he didn't get to do any of the things he wanted to," Gage said. "He didn't get to go to college, he didn't even get to go to high school." 

Dishon and Darrion both agreed, the three of them talking over each other, naming different life experiences Christian would never have. 

Keeping close watch

Ed Gunsch, who brought his 7-year-old great-granddaughter to Lake Elmo on Friday to swim, said he had tried to bring her the day before and had seen the police blocking the entrance to the lake but didn't know why. 

Gunsch looked along the beach and said he didn't understand why there weren't more safety precautions around the lake.

"They sure as heck should have lifeguards," Gunsch said. "They used to have a kind of dock out there as well, you could swim out to it, take a break."

Gunsch shrugged and looked back at the lake.

"That kid yesterday," he said. "I mean how much does it really cost to have a lifeguard?" 

Watching the water, he mumbled "she is getting out too far" and started calling to his great-granddaughter. 

"Sorry, I'm going to go keep an eye on her."

State park policy 

Patrick Doyle, marketing and communications manager for Montana State Parks, said no state parks have lifeguards.

The state park system views water-based recreation like any other type of recreation in that there are implied risks. Signs are posted to inform visitors that they are swimming at their own risk. 

Doyle said he didn't have complete numbers on hand about how many drownings take place each year at Lake Elmo but said the number is extremely low. According to Doug Habermann, regional director for the Eastern Montana state parks, in the past 17 years he can only recall four drownings there. 

Doyle said taking that number into context, Lake Elmo has about 162,000 visits yearly and is the second-most visited park in the region.

"It's one of our most important parks," Doyle said. "And what happened yesterday was a tragedy."

Contacting friends

Brenda Koch, Billings Public Schools K-12 executive director, said school officials compiled a list of Christian's close friends and were able to contact most families and friends close to him.

A counselor was at Castle Rock on Friday in case students wanted to talk, she said, and the counselor will be there all next week as well. 

"Some students need to talk to somebody right away," Koch said. "But just knowing adults care and assuring them they are safe and cared for, and telling them it is OK to feel sad. Validating those emotions and feelings is really important."

Kids should mourn, but also be able to celebrate the life of their friend, she said.

"Unfortunately, death is a part of life," Koch said. "We are giving students the coping skills so they can learn how to process this."

According to a memorial and fundraising page set up with the website, "Christian was a fun, witty boy who loved the outdoors and flying airplanes with his papa Clay. He enjoyed his time with his friends roller skating and playing baseball. He had the most unconditional love for all of his family."

The page raised $3,875 in 22 hours with the help of 76 people, who along with their donations, included comments of comfort for Christian's family. 

A visitation for Christian will be held from noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Heights Family Funeral Home. A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m Wednesday at Harvest Church. 



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