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Illinois woman drowns while helping save three kids in northern Wisconsin lake

An Illinois woman drowned Tuesday while saving three boys in a lake in northern Wisconsin, authorities said.

Karen Wessel, 47, of Arlington Heights, died Tuesday in a swimming accident in Star Lake near the Michigan border, according to a release from the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office.

Wessel was with her sister, Janice Potocki, and another female friend, along with their children.

They were enjoying a vacation in the sisters’ northern Wisconsin summer home and had gone into the water for a swim with a group that included Wessel’s son.

Authorities said that, according to accounts from the friend, three boys had swum across a narrow channel dividing the main shoreline from a sandbar but became exhausted while trying to swim back. The women went out to save the boys, each becoming exhausted themselves.

Wessel reached the last boy — the son of her friend, friends said — and was using her body to try to keep the child above the surface. But eventually, Wessel disappeared in the water.

Another boat came by and secured the boy Wessel was helping. But Wessel soon was spotted floating lifelessly below the water's surface.

She and the boy were taken to an area hospital. She was later pronounced dead.

Don Bussey, a family friend who lives in the neighborhood, said Wessel was a selfless woman who loved her children deeply and overcame the struggles of being a single mom.

“That’s who Karen was,” he said. “She was a hero.”

Wessel, a secretary at a law firm in Chicago, is also survived by a daughter, according to her sister.

“She had two children; I have two children. I’m trying to get used to that,” Potocki said, too emotional to discuss Tuesday’s events.