(KMSP) - A Wisconsin DNR investigative report reveals a series of errors by the family who tipped their kayak in Lake Superior near Madeline Island in late August, leading to the deaths of the three children and their father. Their mother survived.
Eric Fryman, Cari Mews and their three young children arrived on Madeline Island for a long weekend at the end of August.
After lunch on Friday of that week, the family left in a two-person kayak, with room for a third in the middle.
It was the first mistake, of several, documented in the report. It includes pictures and information the public is getting to see for the first time.
Cliff Schmidt is a marine investigator with nearly 40 years’ experience and a former deputy with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department. He agreed to review the case file for the Fox 9 Investigators.
“One of the biggest concerns with Lake Superior is the water temperature; it fluctuates very little in the summer time. It’s always cold, so that’s a concern,” he said.
WRONG TYPE OF KAYAK
What alarmed him most after reading the report was the type of watercraft used by the family.
“Sit-on-top kayak is more of an ocean kayak, warm water kayak, interior lake kayak, or very near shore kayak. I wouldn’t venture out more than 150 feet in the kayak,” Schmidt commented.
In a kayak that offered no protection from the elements, the father made a fateful decision for his family, to try to paddle to the lighthouses on Michigan Island.
From Madeline Island on a clear day, it looks tantalizingly close, but it’s nearly four miles away.
All five family members were wearing life vests and had paddles. However, they were dressed in light clothes, with just a few supplies, a couple packs of cigarettes, a lighter, flashlight and a cell phone.
The weight of all five in the 13 ft. kayak was 442 pounds, just under its 500-pound capacity.
The problem was the way the weight was distributed.
The parents were in the two seats, the nine-year old, Kyra, in the middle, holding her three-year-old brother, Jansen, in her lap. Five-year old, Annaliese sat near the bow.
A local angler in the area recalled saying, “Look at that” when he saw the family crowded in the small kayak. The waves were “2 to 3 feet”, he said, the current “running north extremely hard.”
“You change the attitude and position of the bow which causes more water to come under the bow, which could cause someone to think they were sinking,” Schmidt said.
MOM SOLE SURVIVOR, PROVIDING DETAILS OF ACCIDENT
Sometime before 4 p.m. the weather turned, the water became “rocky” and the kayak began to take on water.
The kayak was self-draining, with holes in the bottom that should’ve kept it afloat
But suddenly, they were hit by a wave. Kyra, the nine-year-old, panicked and jumped out of the kayak, causing it to flip over. Everyone went into the water.
The water temperature was 65 degrees.
Kyra swam towards Michigan Island, as her father and mother tried to flip the kayak, but it was too heavy.
The parents tried placing the other two children on top of the kayak, but they kept slipping off.
The father decided to swim towards the shore with five-year old Annaliese on his back and three-year old Jansen in his arms, yet another fateful decision.
“Their best thing would’ve been to stay with the kayak. Stay with any boat that overturned; it’s buoyant. It’s a big target for rescuers to see, especially a lime green kayak,” Schmidt said.
Only the mother stayed with the kayak. She called the Coast Guard and 911, but the calls kept dropping.
She texted her sister and brother: “911, Michigan Island, kayak tipped.” The messages didn’t go through until nearly four hours later.
The Coast Guard texted back: “This is search & rescue. You’ve been reported overdue/missing.”
The Coast Guard initially pinged the 911 calls to Madeline Island. Eventually, the Coast Guard realized the calls were coming from Lake Superior. Officials began a search by 6 p.m.
“WHERE ARE MY BABIES?”
A U.S. Geological Research Vessel, the Kiyi, saw a light in the distance, and found Mews with the kayak. By this time, it was 10:00 p.m. and she had been in the water six hours.
Exhausted and hysterical, she screamed, “My babies, where are my babies?”
Mews texted her brother, “Coast Guard found me a half hour ago. Everyone is still missing.”
He replied, “You need to be strong for them. We are praying for you.”
Just before midnight, the Coast Guard recovered the bodies of Fryman and the two children from the water. The father died from hypothermia, the children drowned.
Park Rangers found nine-year old Kyra the next morning on the shore of Michigan Island. She died from hypothermia.
“I always tell people three things that precipitate an incident. You can get by one or two, you do that third, tragedies happen,” Schmidt said.
The DNR called it a tragic accident; the contributing factors: overloading of the kayak, operator inexperience and passenger behavior.
The Ashland County Sheriff tells Fox 9 his investigation should wrap up shortly and he expects very similar conclusions.