There should be joy at Turtle Point Marina this time of year — not sorrow.
But the news that four people likely died, their boat later found partially submerged, during a fishing expedition Wednesday night has hit this pocket of northwest Ohio in the gut.
The sorrow has been especially deep at the marina in the Locust Point area of western Ottawa County, where the group was believed to have launched a 21-foot fishing boat they took out onto Lake Erie.
It was there that as many as 30 friends and family members gathered Thursday, waiting and praying for a miracle, choosing to keep to themselves on the western side of Turtle Creek as authorities kept reporters confined to the eastern side of it.
“Distraught and hopeful,” Ottawa County Sheriff Stephen J. Levorchick said at the end of the day’s only news conference when asked to describe the mood of loved ones waiting for answers.
There was no hesitation in his voice.
“Obviously, not knowing is the hardest part for them,” Sheriff Levorchick said.
By Thursday night, authorities had confirmed this much: The bodies of two people who were aboard that fishing boat — Amy Santus, 33, of Perrysburg Township and Paige Widmer, 16, of Pelion, S.C. — had been found in the lake during the day and identified.
Both were wearing life jackets, authorities said.
The identities of the boat’s operator and the other occupant — both males — were not released through official channels.
But The Blade learned through other sources that the operator was Bryan Huff, 32, of Rossford and that the other male occupant was his friend Andrew Rose, 33, of Maumee.
Those two bodies were not recovered Thursday, despite an all-day search on Lake Erie involving boats and aircraft supplied by multiple local, state, and federal agencies.
The search will resume shortly after dawn today.
The two men, according to Sheriff Levorchick, are officially considered missing unless authorities learn otherwise.
Given the extreme risk of hypothermia this time of year — western Lake Erie has been ice-free for only a week now — authorities know the odds of survival aren’t good. But they said they continue to hold out hope one or both of the men might have survived.
Doug Moffitt, 58, an avid fisherman who has been living steps away from the Turtle Point Marina on a year-round basis since 1990, said he has no direct knowledge of what apparently caused the foursome’s boat to overturn.
He said he’s always nervous this time of year because there are so many logs, tree branches, and other debris floating in the water once the ice melts, posing hazards that are hard to see.
“It can come up on you quickly,” said Mr. Moffitt, a former Findlay resident. “There are a lot of floaters in the water.”
But the lure of walleye makes it hard to resist the lake, he said.
According the Sheriff Levorchick, the foursome had transmitted photographs of their fishing excursion to friends and family members while it was in progress.
Nobody knows at this point if a log or anything else caused the boat that Mr. Huff was operating to overturn, or if there was a sudden change in weather and atmospheric conditions that caused waves to become unmanageable.
Mr. Huff knew how to handle a boat.
Joe Whitten, a Toledo pro walleye angler, said Mr. Huff has competed in fishing tournaments with him.
Mr. Whitten said he heard through friends that Mr. Huff had called about 6 p.m. Wednesday and said the group was on its way back in after getting within one catch of their limit on walleyes for the day.
“He’s not one that would be out there after dark,” Mr. Whitten said. “He’s not going to be reckless.”
Mr. Whitten said he saw a picture of the overturned boat in the lake and just “a foot or so of the bow was sticking out.” The boat is black, making it difficult to see when overturned.
Bill Staiger, northern region manager for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ watercraft division, said his investigators were too focused on the search to inspect the boat, which was found by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel about 6:30 a.m. Thursday near Toussaint Reef, about five miles northeast of Locust Point.
The missing boat was partially submerged in the lake, with no people in it, officers said.
Chief Petty Officer Gabriel Settel said the first body was pulled from the water about 9:45 a.m. near Toussaint Reef, the general proximity where the fishing boat was found.
The second was found near Niagara Reef about 11 a.m., Sheriff Levorchick said.
Both sites are several miles from the mainland.
Christopher Titus, a close friend of Mr. Rose, said he learned late Wednesday that Mr. Rose and the others had not returned.
“He lived to be outside. If he wasn’t on the water, he was hunting,” Mr. Titus said. “I am sorry to hear what happened to Andrew and the others. My thoughts and prayers are with their families.”
Mr. Rose, a bartender at Home Slice Pizza on South St. Clair Street in the Toledo Warehouse District, has been a friend of Ms. Santus for more than a decade.
The two were close friends, Mr. Titus said.
“Amy was one of his best friends. They went way back,” he said.
A Mercy spokesman confirmed Thursday that Ms. Santus was a registered nurse at Mercy St. Charles Hospital in Oregon.
Paige Widmer was in the area visiting her father.
A man who identified himself as Troy Widmer, Paige’s father, declined comment at his home. Several neighbors were seen providing condolences to Widmer family members.
Paige was a high school junior at Pelion High School in South Carolina, where she sang alto in the choir for three years and competed in athletics.
“She had an extremely beaming smile that could brighten the darkest of rooms,” said David Stephenson, the school’s choral director.
The teen was a member of the school’s volleyball and track teams, he said.
Despite being on spring break, students gathered at the school Thursday when they heard about the tragedy, a Lexington County School District One spokesman said.
The Pelion choir will dedicate its two spring shows to Paige’s memory.
“It’s like we lost a family member,” Mr. Stephenson said.
The U.S. Coast Guard is the lead agency in the search.
It has received assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, the Ohio DNR watercraft division, and the Toledo Fire Department.
Thursday night, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Cleveland office said it suspended its search for the two remaining people, pending any new developments.
Sheriff Levorchick said he planned to have his agency’s boat back in the water today, from about 8 a.m. to noon.
More than 200 square nautical miles of the lake have been canvassed as part of the search, which began at 2 a.m. Thursday, the Coast Guard said.
The boaters were reported missing about 1:30 a.m. Thursday after they failed to return home. The pickup and boat trailer belonging to one of them was found parked at Turtle Point Marina.
Dr. Dan Cadigan, Ottawa County coroner, said the two recovered bodies have been taken to the Lucas County Coroner’s Office for autopsies to determine the cause of death.
“It’s a shame what happened,” said John Dosh, a Findlay resident visiting his Locust Point cottage with his wife, Scarlett. “It’s terrible you start the summer like that.”
By Tom Henry and Mark Reiter - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (MCT)
Staff writers Mike Sigov, Ignazio Messina, and Matt Markey contributed to this report.
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