Grief-stricken family trying to cope with Wichita teen's Big Ditch drowning

08/12/2013 1:28 PM

08/13/2013 1:34 PM

The Burrow family of Wichita lost a child on Friday.

His name was Steven Burrow – tall, gangly and gentle, only 14 years old, and momentarily foolish. He was swept away and drowned Friday afternoon after he and three friends decided to go play in the rushing waters of the flooded Big Ditch. The Burrows waited two agonizing days before searchers found his body late Sunday morning.

Like all people, the members of the Burrow family had pondered from childhood the same question we all will face: how they might someday cope with grief.

Would they be brave? Would they be forgiving if someone needed forgiving? Would they lose their faith in God?

On Monday, the Burrow family gathered in a living room in Valley Center only an hour after making Steven’s funeral arrangements.

And they answered all those questions.

The rolling water

Friday began with the Burrow children trying to help their grandmother.

Steven and his brother Dylan, a senior going to e-school this coming year, rode to west Wichita to help set up a family garage sale. Ashleigh, their sister, posted a note to her 407 Facebook friends hoping to draw customers.

In the car, the Burrow brothers had looked out over the Big Ditch and were stunned to see it so flooded, the water rolling fast. Steven began quizzing their driver, Josh Sparks, their mother Audrey’s fiance.

“What would happen if you tried to swim in that?” Steven asked. “What would that be like?”

Sparks told them it could be deadly – tons of water, massive power, debris that might snag you.

“What if you came up against a bridge?” Steven asked. Sparks told them how bad it might be, how dangerous. The boys nodded. Steven nodded. He appeared to understand.

At grandmother Joyce Winn’s house, the boys helped set up the garage sale. Then Steven left with some boyhood friends. He had once lived in that neighborhood and had attended nearby Hadley Middle School. No one thought anything of it.

Before he left his grandmother’s house, he helped himself to a sandwich baggie and put his cellphone in it. Apparently he was already planning to get wet and was making sure the phone would not get ruined in the water.

His family knows this because when searchers found his body on Sunday, Steven’s cellphone was still wrapped in the sandwich bag in the pocket of his jeans.

The first call

The first call to 911 dispatchers came at 12:52 p.m. Friday.

One of Steven’s friends had run for 20 minutes from where he saw Steven go under the water. It took 22 minutes for him to run from the Big Ditch to a phone.

Audrey got a call not long after, as did Joyce, the grandmother. Ashleigh, Steven’s sister, when she reached the grassy area on the east bank of the Big Ditch at Zoo Boulevard and I-235, saw police cars and men in uniforms looking out over the rolling tons of water, talking on radios, on cellphones. She saw Steven’s friends standing near the Big Ditch, looking down at the ground, talking to police. She ran to them.

At moments like this, some people might yell at those boys.

Why go in the water? Whose idea was this? Was it your idea? Did you try to pull him out?

Ashleigh said she felt sheer terror for her brother’s life but said nothing cruel to the pair after she saw their faces. They were deathly quiet, “solemn.”

“Don’t feel guilty,” she told them. “Don’t beat yourselves up over this.”

They looked at her, then looked down at their feet. They looked out over the water and looked down again.

Ashleigh posted another message to Facebook: “My brother is missing please pray for my family. He’s the boy in the news.”

Audrey came, and Joyce, sobbing hard, and Steven’s grandfather, Kevin Burrow, holding a cellphone, patting them all on the shoulders. The Burrows gathered around him; his face seemed to radiate strength. They gathered in a circle, arms encircling shoulders in prayer.

Before Ashleigh left that spot, a long time later, with Steven still missing, she walked back to the friends who had gone swimming with Steven. She hugged them both.

She posted to Facebook again that night: “I’ve never been so scared and full of grief in my entire life.”

The wait

The family watched in agony that night and the next day as police, firefighters and volunteers pushed themselves to exhaustion to find Steven.

The search continued all Saturday, hour after hour. Ashleigh posted messages teetering between hope and despair.

“Guys, I could not be more serious. Tell people how much you love them. I DO NOT CARE what arguments you’ve had. They could be at the bottom of the river or the spillway. They could be GONE from your life. I know what it feels like to think that they’re gone, and you better thank God today that your family is whole.”

“Until I know otherwise, I believe that my brother Steven is alive, and God is taking care of him either way. If he’s gone, my grandpa Don is taking good care of him.”

They prayed and talked about the boy they refused to believe they had lost. They laughed sometimes, in spite of themselves, at how they’d seen tall, thin Steven eat two brats and two cheeseburgers at one sitting.

He liked to make coffee for them. “Would you like to have some of Uncle Stevie’s Special Brew?”

He hated the sight of feet – he wore socks around the house, even on hot days, because the sight of his own feet bothered him.

He mocked the walks of dogs, mocked odd people he had met, mocked family members by making gentle fun of their idiosyncrasies. He loved to play video games in the basement but would come upstairs every half-hour and tell anyone listening, “I love you.”

He loved God, and the “Lord of the Rings.” For his birthday, Ashleigh had taken a woman’s shapeless dress and turned it into a knight’s suit like the one actor Sean Bean wore when he played Boromir in “The Lord of the Rings” film. The surcoat she made for him was purple with a gold and silver lining. She even found chain mail to go with it.

“Another night without my brother,” she posted late on Saturday . “Please don’t stop praying. Our father can move mountains.”

Steven is found

“This is getting harder,” Ashleigh posted on Sunday morning. But she was still convinced that Jesus would bring him home.

She was at church when the call came from her mother. Audrey told her Steven was gone.

Ashleigh went into the parking lot of the church and screamed.

“They found his body,” Ashleigh posted shortly after. “I am nothing.”

‘Pure love and kindness’

On Monday afternoon, the Burrow family gathered in a house in Valley Center. They had just come from the mortuary.

“And that was the seventh level of hell, going there,” Audrey said.

Jeremy Burrow, Steven’s father, said his son was a hero to him.

Audrey said she was worried about those boys, Steven’s friends. One of them had stopped by her house on Saturday, left a kindly note. She said she does not want those boys feeling bad.

At the mortuary, the family had made arrangements for how to dress Steven’s body. They would dress him in the knight’s suit, the purple outfit with the gold and silver lining and the chain mail.

Ashleigh said that when the news first came that he had died, she had wondered what this might do to her faith. But in spite of it all, that was an easy decision.

“I am so thankful for the pure love and kindness I feel,” she posted on Monday . “I can sleep tonight knowing that he’s with the master of the universe, and he’ll sure as heck have something to tell me when I meet him again.”

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