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Students’ Florida Adventure Ends in Deaths of Two

Times Staff Writer

Shrugging off the stress of finals, eight high school students from Darlington School piled into the “Magic Bus,” a converted yellow school bus with generations of song lyrics in graffiti on its walls. They were off on one of English teacher Steve Hall’s adventures, a week that invited them to shed their campus personas and fall into a simple rhythm of campfires and paddling.

They had been on the water near Suwannee, Fla., for less than a day when darkness overtook them. After spending Saturday night fighting five-foot swells, six teenagers and two faculty members were rescued Sunday by the Coast Guard, who hoisted two of them into a helicopter.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 03, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Students’ deaths -- An article in some editions of Wednesday’s Section A incorrectly described one of the victims of a Florida canoeing accident. In one paragraph, Sean Wilkinson, not Clay McKemie, was the towheaded boy described.

But two ninth-graders had been drawn out to the Gulf of Mexico. Their bodies were found Monday, 11 miles offshore; one boy had tied himself to the green canoe, as he had been instructed.

The deaths of Clay McKemie and Sean Wilkinson, both 14, have sent a shudder through Darlington School, a prep school in the foothills of northwest Georgia.

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“We’re just almost indescribably saddened by this loss,” said James Hendrix, interim president of Darlington School, whose motto is “Wisdom more than knowledge; service beyond self; honor above everything.”

If there was one kid excited about the trip, it was Clay McKemie, a skinny cutup who had the nerve to break dance at a school formal. Clay had already gone on an 80-mile canoe trip led by Hall, the school’s free-spirited outdoor guru. Hall, 48, is pictured in a school catalog wearing Viking horns, and was universally known as “Meester,” the mispronounced legacy of a long-ago foreign student.

Hall wrote whimsical travelogues of extracurricular trips with students, whom he hailed as the “soldiers of freedom” or “fine, young preppy cannibals.” Chris Tumblin, 15, a freshman, described him as “really strange, in the best way possible.”

“He loves the kids as much as he loves nature,” Chris said. “And that’s a lot.”

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Hall could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The group set out from a boat ramp on the Suwannee River -- two faculty members, four boys and four girls. They were in three kayaks, three canoes and a motorized pontoon boat carrying their gear, said Darlington’s dean of students, Greg Griffeth, who had spoken with survivors. Once the group entered the Gulf of Mexico, the plan was to hug the shoreline in three- or four-foot waters and travel about three miles north to Coon Island, the nearest island that allowed camping, Griffeth said.

By 5:30 p.m., they were near Coon Island, and the sun was setting, he said. The seven boats were in scattered single file, and Hall planned to drop off the equipment and then head back to round up stragglers. He could see all six boats behind him -- the last was the green canoe, with Clay and Sean paddling, Griffeth said.

At that point, the motorized propeller on the pontoon boat stopped turning -- perhaps because it got tangled in a lobster trap, Hendrix said.

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Darkness was falling, and the wind was picking up.

Early that morning, the National Weather Service had issued a small-craft advisory, warning of a northeasterly wind and seas of two to four feet. When they set off, Griffeth said, the sea had been calm. Then it became choppy.

Hall ordered all the boats to lash themselves to the pontoon boat, and Hall headed out in a canoe with a senior, Adam Moody, to find the two boys in the green canoe. They were following a light -- one of the boys had a lamp strapped to his head. They had closed the distance between them by about half, Griffeth said, when the light they were following went out.

Back at the pontoon boat, five students and the second adult counselor were also watching lights, coming from a radio tower on shore, Griffeth said. The lights flickered and disappeared.

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“I think it was a cycle of emotion from times of despair to feeling good about the situation,” Griffeth said.

Hall and Moody paddled for hours, disoriented. Their luck finally turned around midnight, when they spotted some lights onshore -- from Horseshoe, Fla. -- and paddled toward them until Hall’s cellphone got a signal, according to Capt. John Burton of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Hall called his wife, Christina, who alerted the Coast Guard. A search was launched.

It was after 3 a.m. and raining when the Coast Guard spotted the first drifting boat. From a helicopter, Lt. Adam Kerr peered through pelting rain -- it was too dark even for night-vision goggles -- and saw the students lashed to the pontoon boat waving flashlights. He estimated that the waves around the pontoon boat were four to six feet high. Kerr notified a small Coast Guard cutter, and hovered overhead until the Coast Guard lights were on the group’s boats.

Almost immediately, Kerr’s crew glimpsed a second light. This one was “frantically waving” from a canoe. The canoe was full of water, and the seas were getting higher, Kerr said.

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Kerr and his crew dropped a rescue swimmer, and hoisted Moody and Steve Hall from the water.

“That’s when I heard what had happened to them, and when I found out we did not have everybody accounted for,” Kerr said. “We had to head in, though, on our chopper, as fuel was getting low.”

Through Sunday, and into Monday, the search went on for the two boys.

Sean was tow-headed, “the cruise director of the family,” a “lovely, lovely child,” said Samantha Farist, a friend of the family. He had joined the drama club and published a poem in the school’s literary magazine.

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“When he walked into a room, you knew Sean was there,” she said.

Friends remembered Clay’s newfound wonder at the outdoors. Even after the accident, Hendrix said, Clay’s father pleaded for the outdoor education to be continued in the boy’s memory.

Memorials for Clay and Sean are planned for next week.

Hendrix said he was confident that Hall made the right decisions Saturday. Hall has been leading similar excursions at Darlington for 12 years without a single complaint or incident, and had led kayaks and canoes on that route eight times, he said.

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“It took this combination of things, almost like a perfect storm. Everything has to go wrong for a tragedy to occur,” Hendrix said. “But the engine failing was the main thing.”

A Coast Guard news release concluded that “unfavorable weather conditions may have been the leading factor in this tragic loss.”

But talk of the incident has not quieted among kayakers familiar with the Gulf Coast. Misadventures like this one should remind boaters to err on the side of caution, said Russell Farrow, a guide with Sweetwater Kayaks. “It’s the sea,” Farrow said. “It’s always worse than it looks.”

Times researcher Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.

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