Lake Erie drowning has shocked the close-knit community.
On Saturday of the Family Day long weekend, Alex Ottley, 9, his sister Melody, 10, and a neighbour, Jackson, 8, were playing together in a park at Peacock Point, a community of approximately 300 on Lake Erie, 60 km south of Hamilton. The two boys headed down to the water and sat on a shelf of ice that had formed around the shore. It was approximately a four-foot drop to the water below, but the waves that day were rough, reaching as high as 10 feet.
One of the waves caught Jackson and swept him into the water. Alex, seeing his friend in trouble, jumped in, attempting to rescue him. But the strong pull of the waves prevented the boys from climbing back up. Melody, who’d been watching from nearby, ran for home—only a few blocks away—to get help. On her way, she flagged down a passing car with a couple inside. Hearing what happened, the couple ran down to the ice. The man called 911, while the woman crawled out onto the ice shelf and grasped a hold of Jackson’s hand. Despite a tenuous grip, she was able to prevent him from going under, but the crashing waves made it difficult to pull him to safety.
Meanwhile, Katie and Troy Owens, Alex and Melody’s grandparents and legal guardians, had heard what happened. “Troy started running down,” says Debbie Vallee, the treasurer for the Peacock Point Cottage Owners’ Association. “They went down there, and Troy just ran in the water. He just dove into the water, and Alex went under, and he couldn’t find him.”
By this point, a number of other bystanders were on the scene and managed to pull Jackson from the water. Jackson’s father reached a stick out to Troy to try to pull him clear as well. “Troy was just holding on to this stick, waiting for the waves to push him up,” Vallee says. “It took five or six tries before he was able to get himself out.”
During this time, Alex did not resurface.
The Ontario Provincial Police received a call alerting them to the incident around 4:35 p.m. on Saturday. A search of the shoreline and water began Saturday afternoon but was suspended around 6 p.m. due to darkness. At around 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, the search was changed from a rescue mission to a recovery with Alex presumed drowned.
The search resumed on Sunday morning, but the conditions were too dangerous to send in divers. Instead, Const. Rodney LeClair, a media relations officer with the OPP, says they used a “side-scan sonar device to try and pick up any images that are below the surface.” For added assistance, an OPP helicopter, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter (flown in from Detroit), and a U.S. Coast Guard Zodiac boat scanned the shoreline and waters, but no trace of Alex was found.
Since the Lake Erie drowning on the weekend, the ice shelf has broken up, with the waves now crashing against a concrete wall along the shoreline. As a result, LeClair says, they’re taking the search day by day based on the conditions.
To assist with the search efforts, the residents of Peacock Point have banded together, offering food and a warm hall to the searchers. “The local Tim Hortons in Jarvis and Hagersville have donated the coffee for the last three days,” Vallee says. “I’m overwhelmed by the generosity.”
But Alex’s family has taken the loss hard, with Katie and Troy avoiding bystanders and asking to have their privacy respected. “[Katie’s] heartbroken and devastated,” Vallee says. “It’s been a rough three days for her.”
To protect Melody, Katie and Troy sent her to Troy’s parents for the remainder of the weekend and have pulled her from school while the search continues. Jackson’s family has yet to talk to anybody. “Their windows and their house are just closed right down,” Vallee says.
The loss has shaken the close-knit community, and until Alex’s body is found, “nobody can start their grieving process,” Vallee says.