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Community grapples with preventing future water-related tragedies

Nicholas Stowman, 15, of Duluth, places a bouquet of flowers at a memorial for Will Schlotec at the jumping-off at the Deeps in Duluth on Monday afternoon. Schlotec died while jumping into Amity Creek last Saturday. Stowman was a friend of Schlotec and took classes with him. About 100 friends and supporters showed up Monday afternoon to remember their friend. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Flowers, photos, messages of love and other mementos were placed at the jumping-off spot above the Deeps on Monday by friends of Will Schlotec. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Friends of Will Schlotec support one another in their grief during a memorial gathering for him along Amity Creek at the Deeps on Monday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Mady Friese, 14, of Duluth looks down toward the Deeps on Monday during an impromptu memorial for Will Schlotec, who drowned over the weekend. Friese came to show her support. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Friends of Will Schlotec support one another as they sit on the rocks above Amity Creek at the Deeps on Monday afternoon in Duluth. Schlotec drowned after jumping into the Deeps on Saturday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
A simple wooden cross was placed by friends at the jumping-off site at the Deeps on Monday. It reads: "In loving memory of Will Joby Schlotec. We love you baby." Click on the image for the full view. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Red flags and fences don't stop the water from swallowing our loved ones. Yet tragedies don't need to be an annual occurrence.

"It's almost impossible to eliminate the hazard," Duluth Assistant Fire Chief Erik Simonson said. "It's just a matter of trying to get the word out to parents and families and kids — being careful, being aware of your surroundings and paying attention."

This summer, like all those before it, has seen a number of water-related injuries and fatalities in and around the Twin Ports. Earlier this year a father and his young daughter drowned off Park Point amid strong rip currents, and just this past weekend 15-year-old Will Schlotec died after jumping into a rain-swollen section of Amity Creek called the Deeps.

It's not enough to simply block jumping-off points, Simonson said, since that will just "shift the problem somewhere else." Still, communities crave a response in the wake of such heart-wrenching losses.

"This isn't something that kids and families want to keep experiencing," Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said Monday afternoon before she headed out to the Deeps to see what man-made enticements might need to be removed.

Larson said Duluth East High School's student executive committee is planning an awareness campaign to help kids stay safe in the wake of their classmate's death.

"What we can really do as a community is really talk with each other about how to gauge risk levels and what that looks like," she said. "I'll be really supportive of what East High School wants to do."

Friends of Will Schlotec reflect Monday as they look down from where Schlotec jumped into the pool at the Deeps. Bob King / DNT

It's not just teens who take part in this waterborne rite of passage, however. On Friday evening three grown men were standing shirtless on the railroad bridge above the Lester River, not far from the Deeps, peering into the depths below. It's a scene that has played out countless times.

"That's been done since that bridge was put there," Simonson said. "Anytime you have a jumping-off point over a water source ... it's a challenge for us."

In August 2008 Jessica Smith jumped from that bridge after seeing a few others make it down safely. The only fond memory she has of that day is of the rescue crews who "treated me like I was their own daughter."

Smith broke a vertebra, spent days in the intensive care unit and nearly a year in a brace after landing the wrong way in the river. Nearly 10 years on, the accident still causes her pain.

"Looking back, I wish I hadn't jumped," she said. "I was 21 and just having fun. I see so many people always blaming the victim for not knowing better, but when you're young, you think you're invincible — bad things will never happen to you. I fully believed that until it did happen to me."

The world may be a dangerous place, but so is the human brain. The allure of adrenaline has been passed down for thousands of generations and certainly predates railroad bridges.

"It looks like the genetic influences on this aspect of our personalities is shaped by our experiences, peers and culture, and that shaping directs how we express our sensation-seeking — in directions that cause us problems or not," said Scott Carlson, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "Brain areas important for impulse control are maturing and changing during the teen years and into the early 20s, plus we may be even more prone to peer influences making us take risks we would not otherwise."

Which makes a student-to-student initiative like that at Duluth East — intentional peer pressure — all the more powerful.

Carlson, who studies risk and impulsivity, recounted a canyon in Vancouver, B.C., where he used to live. A list of people who died seeking thrills in that canyon was posted following years of accidents there, making the threat less abstract.

"I suspect that kind of specific warning sign would be harder to ignore, even if you are a greater risk-taker," he said. "Bottom line, though — there are no easy solutions."

Memorial for Will Schlotec set for Friday

Dozens of friends of Will Schlotec gathered in Lester Park on Monday afternoon to remember and reminisce about the 15-year-old Duluth boy who drowned in the park on Saturday.

Schlotec, who was a student at Duluth East High School, failed to resurface after jumping into rain-swollen Amity Creek at the area known as "the Deeps." He was pulled from the water a few blocks downstream, and later died from his injuries.

Will Schlotec

Classmates, teammates and others who knew Will gathered on the trail and bridge in the vicinity of the Deeps, looking out over the creek and leaving flowers, notes, photos and other mementos.

A visitation for Will has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday, followed by a noon memorial service at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, 1325 N 45th Ave E. in Duluth. Find his full obituary here.

An online fundraiser for Will's family had raised about $17,000 as of Monday night. You can find the fundraiser at www.gofundme.com/rememberingwilljobyschlotec.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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