Camping trip takes deadly turn

An unidentified woman is consoled after learning that the bodies of Clay McKemie, 14, of Rome, Ga. and Sean Wilkinson, 14, of Acworth, Ga. were discovered 11 miles offshore of Suwannee, Fla. shortly before 12 p.m. Monday, February 28, 2004.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 28, 2005 at 11:53 p.m.
SUWANNEE - Choppy waters set in motion events that ended with the deaths of two Georgia teenagers canoeing off the Dixie County coastline.
The bodies of Sean Wilkinson of Acworth, Ga., and Clay McKemie of Rome, Ga., both 14, were found Monday in the Gulf of Mexico about 11 miles offshore near the town of Suwannee.
The teenagers, on a camping trip with six other students and two adults from a private school, the Darlington School in Rome, Ga., had planned to spend the night at Coon Island about three miles north of Suwannee, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Karen Parker said. But the pair and their canoe became separated from a convoy of canoes and kayaks heading for the island Saturday afternoon.
The group's leader unsuccessfully tried to locate the two after spotting a blinking flashlight south of the island.
Searchers held out hope through the weekend that the two ninth-graders, both wearing life jackets, might survive in spite of stormy weather and the 58- to 60-degree water.
"The longer you're in it, the worse off you are," Parker said about the water's temperature.
But Billy Miller, owner of Miller's Marina in Suwannee, where rescuers set up a command post during the search, said, "They were all hoping that somehow they had made it to shore."
"It's not only a loss to the family, but a loss to the community because we feel like we let them down," Miller said after the boys' bodies were found.
Suwannee residents offered housing, food and support to the boys' families and to the eight survivors of the trip that was supposed to have lasted a few days during the Spring Break holiday.

Weather factors

A leading factor in the accident may have been poor weather conditions, searchers later said.
Water near shore was 1 to 2 feet with 11 to 17 mph winds Saturday, said Marty Trexler, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee. An advisory for the area had called for small craft to exercise caution.
"We didn't have any showers or thunderstorms at all," he said.
But Lorrie Colson, a volunteer at the Suwannee Baptist Church, said that the sudden gusts of wind would catch tourists unfamiliar with the area off guard.
Local residents know the weather can change in a split second, she said.
One local boater said he was out in the area Saturday and put into a sheltered spot to fish because of the poor weather.
Rougher weather was moving toward the coast, Trexler said.
By Sunday, conditions were posing problems for rescuers looking for the teenagers.
"Everything kind of deteriorated and got fairly rough," Miller said.
Local boaters willing to help with the search were told to stay out of the water so more people wouldn't end up missing.
Officials also said the inexperience of the boaters led to some of them getting separated.
The Georgia group had planned to skirt the coastline for about four miles before setting up camp for the night at Coon Island, according to Darlington School officials.
Coon Island is one of many small, uninhabited islands off the Dixie County coastline. The area is popular with boaters, paddlers, campers and nature enthusiasts hoping to spot wildlife.
Three canoes, three kayaks and a motor-powered raft set out from a public ramp in Suwannee sometime between noon and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Parker said. The canoes and kayaks were spread out from each other when, about a half mile from the island, the raft's motor failed. Five of the boats tied up to the raft, but Sean and Clay's canoe wasn't among them.
By 9 p.m., after spotting what seemed to be the beam of a flashlight south of the raft one of the adults and a student left the group in search of the boys. However, they became lost and disoriented in the dark. They paddled for several hours, Parker said, until they got a signal on a cell phone they had with them and the man called his wife. She contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, which alerted the FWC about 1 a.m. Sunday.
Searchers located the six students and two adults by 4 a.m. Sunday.
The Coast Guard and the FWC spent the rest of the day combing the Dixie County coastline from the air, water and land. Then, shortly before noon Monday, the boys' bodies were found, one with the overturned canoe and the other about a half-mile away.

Community mourns

In a letter to students and parents, Jim Hendrix, interim president of Darlington School, said, "Our hearts and prayers go out to these families. We must find strength from each other as we grieve the loss of these two fine young men."
The group's leader, Steve Hall, is a 12-year veteran teacher at the Darlington School in and a licensed outdoor tour guide, according to the school's Web site. He has 25 years of experience in outdoor education, it also said.
"Steve has previously led this trip seven times, as well as innumerable other outings through his company, Orr-Treks. There has never been an incident involving safety on any of his trips," Hendrix said.
Parker said, "Him getting away from the main group and actually getting a signal on the cell phone and calling his wife pretty much saved the rest of the group."
After learning the news that the boys drowned, about 30 teary-eyed family members, friends and schoolteachers gathered in the parking lot of the Suwannee Baptist Church.
"This is hurting more then anything I've seen in my 27 years," said David Rhodes, headmaster of Darlington School.
Rhodes said the boys "were fantastic kids. They loved outdoor trips."
He also said Hall frequently took students on camping trips, and had even gone canoeing in Costa Rica with students.
Greg Griffeth, the dean of students for Darlington School, said the canoe trip was only supposed to be a couple of days long.
When asked if anyone in the group carried radios with them, Griffeth said he thought nobody had them.
"It's not like they were out on the open ocean," Griffeth said responding to the question.
Parker said the Medical Examiner's Office in Jacksonville will examine the boys' bodies to determine the cause of death.
Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@

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