The drowning deaths of two Langley boys, Brendan Wilson, 17, and Austin Kingsborough, 18, in April put this community in a state of shock.
Their loss is still felt today. Many friends of the boys still carry the logo “For the Boys” on their vehicles.
But now some family members and friends of the family are keeping the boys’ legacy alive by starting up a non-profit society dedicated to searching and recovering victims of drowning.
Their goal is to buy and use special sonar equipment similar to that used to recover Wilson’s and Kingsborough’s bodies, after the RCMP dive team were unable to using the limited equipment they had.
The non-profit organization, called Legacy Water Search and Recovery Society, will be dedicated to bringing closure to the families of drowning victims.
“We want to bring closure for the next family — to help families who find themselves in the same situation we were in,” said Scott Lebus, family friend of the Wilson family, who is president of the water recovery society.
He said it is agonizing not knowing, not having that closure.
After five agonizing days, the RCMP dive team called off their search in the choppy waters of Nicola Lake, near Merritt, where the boys went missing on April 20.
“The RCMP came up on April 26, at 1:33 p.m., and told us we’re done searching,” said Lebus.
“It was crushing.”
On that day, Lebus and Connie Wilson contacted Gene Ralston from Idaho for his help. He is an underwater search specialist with unique side scanner sonar equipment that can locate victims in water as deep as 900 feet. Since 1999, Ralston has recovered more than 86 bodies.
Ralston and his wife Sandy volunteer their time, only asking that people pay for the travel expenses.
“Often victims of drowning are never located and police are unable to resolve the case successfully,” said LeBus.
It took the Ralstons nearly a week to arrive in Merritt, but in less than 30 minutes they discovered both boys in 75 feet of water near the Wilson cabin.
Gene recovered both boys’ bodies through the use of a remote operated vehicle or ROV.
Thanks to the Ralstons, both boys went home.
A memorial service was held for both boys at Christian Life Assembly, and hundreds came out.
Also part of the society is Jim Ward, Brendan’s uncle. He said his sister and brother-in-law are keeping very busy and do have two other kids that keep them strong.
“But everyone has bad days. Some days, I find myself thinking about them a lot,” said Ward.
“We have been there and we know. So we can also bring that emotional support component too, to those families searching,” Ward said about what the society will be about.
Both Ward and Lebus will be trained to do recoveries. They hope to create a pool of trained volunteers ready to go where they are needed.
Lebus and Ward have had the help of the Ralstons in setting up the society, and they hope to be trained by Gene.
Other families who have faced similar tragedy are involved in the society.
After locating the boys, the Ralstons went to Shuswap Lake to look for a missing fisherman, John Poole, a 59-year-old husband and father. His fishing boat was discovered on the shoreline, with engine running and fishing lines still in the water on April 30. The Ralstons worked six days straight, nine hours a day, and on the morning of May 13, they located Poole’s body in 235 feet of water, right off the point of his favourite fishing spot.
Poole’s widow and stepson are part of the society.
The RCMP divers do not have this unique equipment nor do they have the resources to be trained to use it.
The society is appreciative of what the RCMP can do, but feel this society could really make a difference.
“A man was missing in Newfoundland for 73 days and Gene came there and found him in 29 minutes,” said Lebus and Ward.
But the equipment isn’t “magic,” said Lebus. The Ralstons were called to Harrison Lake this month to try and recover the body of a missing camper believed to have drowned in early June. They were unable to locate the man in the deep water, and called off the search.
Already the Grand Pub in Merritt, on its own, held a fundraiser for the society, raising $3,400. That allowed the founders to build the infrastructure, including registering the society and creating a website.
The equipment they want to buy isn’t cheap but is made right here in B.C. They said the society is looking for around $350,000 and that will cover buying the equipment, an RV, boat and training for volunteers, to be ready to go out and help throughout this province.
“It would be amazing to reach that goal and be ready by next summer,” said Ward and Lebus.
This is a tragedy that is impacting a lot of families, especially this year.
The number of drownings in B.C. is way up from last year, with more than 40 reported by mid-July.
“We want to incorporate education around water safety too. I’d prefer to educate than recover,” said Ward.
He points out that even tethering a life jacket to your wrist while out in the water is a good alternative if you don’t want to wear one.
The group of volunteers both here and in Alberta are hoping to get several corporate sponsors to help.
“If we could just get 10 companies to donate $15,000 each, we are more than half way there,” said Lebus.
There will be a For the Boys Memorial Golf Tournament to benefit Legacy Water Search and Recovery on Thursday, Sept. 12, at Newlands Golf & Country Club. Tickets are $160 and available on the website www.legacywatersearch.com. There will also be an identical golf tournament in Calgary in September. Tickets are also available on the website for that.
The founders are currently registering the society, so it can provide tax receipts for anyone wanting to make a donation to the society.