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Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
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204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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Death ruled accidental drowning
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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Kerion Jykeem Witcher died from accidental drowning.

That’s according to an external examination by a local medical examiner, said Tracie Cooper, administrator of the state medical examiner’s district office in Roanoke, on Tuesday.

Witcher, 18, of Martinsville, was found about 5 p.m. Friday in about 15 feet of water in the swimming area at Fairy Stone State Park, according to a news release from the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office. Rescue personnel attempted unsuccessfully to revive him. He was transported to Pioneer Hospital in Stuart, where he was pronounced dead, the release said.

Cooper said that normally when there is a witnessed drowning, an external examination is done rather than an autopsy. In an external examination, the body is examined for bruising or suspicious things, but the body is not opened as it is in an autopsy.

Gary Waugh, public relations manager at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, said Tuesday the investigation into the incident is ongoing. Officials want to give eyewitnesses more time to provide information. Anyone who can help is asked to call the park at (276) 930-2424.

Waugh said he hopes to soon have a more substantial timeline of what happened.

Preliminary information in the investigation indicated that from the time lifeguards were notified until Witcher was found underwater was about 15 minutes, Waugh said. However, family members have said that Witcher was underwater 45 minutes, Waugh said.

Kim Witcher, Kerion Witcher’s aunt, told the Bulletin on Monday night, “My nephew stayed under the water 45 minutes.” Her family has a gathering every Fourth of July at Fairy Stone, she said.

Her son, Kenneth “K.J.” Lewis Jr., who said he was swimming with Kerion, estimated that Kerion was underwater “a good 30 to 35 minutes.”

“What happens in these situations is that lifeguards try to get everyone out of the water, so they can concentrate on the rescue themselves,” Waugh said.

That’s what the lifeguards did to the best of their ability in this situation, Waugh said. “It was an emotional scene. Family was encouraging people to go back in (the water), and a number of people went back in,” he added. An effort was made to organize people in a search line, and one of the volunteers found Kerion Witcher, Waugh said.

“We were fortunate we didn’t have another victim. There was a bit of a problem with crowd control,” Waugh said.

Lifeguards “were doing exactly what they were trained to do: Get people out of the water so they (lifeguards) can search,” Waugh said.

Lifeguards have no way of assessing people’s ability to swim, he said. In fact, one lifeguard had to provide assistance and a float to help someone back to shallow water or the shore, Waugh said.

Five lifeguards were on duty, one of whom relieves another so everyone has a break, Waugh said.

Three lifeguards were in the water actively searching for Witcher, one was on the diving platform trying to keep people from going in the water, and one was in shallow water trying to keep people out of the water, Waugh said.

Lifeguards must be Red Cross certified, which requires extensive training, Waugh said. All five lifeguards on duty had that certification, and several have had previous experience at Fairy Stone, he said. He added that the youngest lifeguard on duty was 18, and he believes the minimum age to be a lifeguard is 16.

Waugh said lifeguards take buoys into the water, but he would have to check into whether they keep additional equipment with them.

K.J. Lewis Jr. praised one lifeguard that Lewis said stayed in the water about 30 minutes searching for Kerion Witcher. “I have respect for the guy (that lifeguard),” Lewis said. “I feel like the guy should not have any regrets. He was one of the main reasons he (Kerion Witcher) got found.”

However, Lewis said, two lifeguards searched in the water only several minutes, then told people to get out of the water. He said he feels if lifeguards would have allowed people to stay in the water longer, that his cousin would have been found sooner.

Lewis said Kerion Witcher “wasn’t the best swimmer, but he was a good swimmer.” Lewis said he and his cousin were like brothers and that Witcher had no health problems.

Waugh said, “I understand family members being distraught and critical.” He declined to comment further.

According to the gofundme website, as of about 7:40 p.m. Tuesday, $4,771 had been raised by 104 donors to help with funeral expenses for Witcher. The goal is $8,000. Prenceanna Craft, Witcher’s grandmother, created the page.

Craft, a pastor, will officiate at the funeral, which will be at 1 p.m. Thursday at Martinsville High School. Visitation will be there two hours before the funeral.


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