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Father talks about drowning of 11-year-old at lake party

2017: Pathway Church congregation mourns 11-year-old who drowned

Pathway Church executive pastor Larry Wren reads a prepared statement about the congregation grieving the loss of one of their members, Shelby Cramb, 11, who drowned Sunday during a church-sponsored lake party near 29th and Ridge. (Aug. 28, 2017)
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Pathway Church executive pastor Larry Wren reads a prepared statement about the congregation grieving the loss of one of their members, Shelby Cramb, 11, who drowned Sunday during a church-sponsored lake party near 29th and Ridge. (Aug. 28, 2017)

Andrew Cramb read the part of an Eagle headline saying his 11-year-old daughter, Shelby, was not a strong swimmer.

Shelby drowned this past Sunday at a church-related party for children at a private west Wichita lake.

Cramb knew that “not a strong swimmer” is what a police investigative report quoted someone saying after the incident. But it isn’t correct, he said Saturday. And, yes, as the police report said, his daughter had asthma. But it was mild, he said. She never had asthma attacks.

Cramb told an Eagle reporter Saturday that in fact his daughter was a strong swimmer, an experienced swimmer. “She has been around water her whole life.”

She knew the importance of life jackets and always wore them – but not at the party.

Cramb said he wants to stress the importance of life jackets.

Shelby disappeared under the murky water at the lake where she was supposed to be celebrating the end of summer with about 105 to 110 other children.

That she was not wearing a life vest is one of the facts that her father is agonizing over, he said in a 35-minute phone conversation Saturday afternoon.

“There are so many what-ifs,” he said, sometimes articulating in an even voice, sometimes struggling to keep from sobbing.

The day of the party, her life vest remained on his bench press in the garage when he took his daughter to the party she wanted to attend.

“I didn’t even think about sending it out there” with her, he recalled.

Cramb, a 41-year-old electrical engineer, said he assumed that some type of flotation device would be available at the party. According to the police reports, vests were worn by at least some of the children that day when they went out in groups of eight on boats to go tubing. While waiting on boats, kids could go swimming.

Cramb said he doesn’t know whether there was a “buddy system” for the swimmers.

‘They can disappear’

According to the police reports, four to five adults were supervising from the beach front as children swam near water described as chest-deep before dropping off. Shelby was used to lake water that remains chest deep for some distance, her father said.

Lake water “is dark, and they can disappear in an instant,” Cramb said Saturday. So even if someone saw a child go under, he said, it would difficult to find them.

In a eulogy entitled “Sweet Shelby Lea,” which he read at his daughter’s funeral service Friday, Cramb told mourners:

“She had 6 years of swimming lessons and had outgrown three life jackets. We were not new to water and we always used life jackets, swimming many times at Fall River, Lake Afton, and had just swam in Cheney Lake Friday night. There was a pool noodle in our trunk … I just didn't think to have her take it with her.”

Then, referring to the lake lined by homes where she died, his eulogy continued: “West Wichita lakes are not lakes … they are sand pits. And they are deep and dangerous. Many years ago, west Wichita sandpits were closed to swimming because of regular drownings.

“Please do not let your children swim in them without a jacket,” he told the hundreds listening.

He knows that this is a holiday weekend, involving plenty of swimming, where other lives could be at risk if people don’t take every precaution.

Every year, he said, his parents took Shelby and her younger brother to the State Fair – and escorted them to a water safety exhibit.

‘A little freedom’

He and his wife, Joanna, thought about not letting Shelby go to the party, partly because they had a busy weekend, he said.

But she was starting middle school. “I wanted to give her a little freedom,” not be a “helicopter parent.”

He didn’t know whether he should stay at the party after dropping her off, he said. “I did nothing during that time” while he was back home, he said, starting to cry. So while his daughter played at the lake, he strummed his guitar as Shelby’s younger brother played with toys.

He and his wife returned to the house on the cul-de-sac where the party was being hosted 10 minutes before the party ended on the shore behind the house.

So they were there waiting at the designated pick-up spot for the children around the time that someone – according to the police reports – saw Shelby swimming. She was last seen swimming about eight minutes before a group photo was taken, a photo in which Shelby didn’t appear.

The two-hour party ended at 4. At 4:37, Cramb’s wife called 911 after they couldn’t find their daughter.

At one point, Cramb said, he waded out into the water, trying to feel around and noticed it was chest deep on him and then dropped off. Nothing. After a number of minutes, police suggested he might want to come out of the water.

A firefighter water-rescue team went out with scuba gear into the water. They found her body about 10 feet down and 10 to 25 feet out from the shore, according to varying accounts in the police reports. Cramb said it was closer to 20 to 25 feet out.

‘To mean something’

Cramb said he knew when they found her.

“Agony set in,” he recalled.

As the searchers recovered their daughter’s body, he and his wife were looking out of the living room windows of the home where the party was being held. The couple collapsed onto the floor, holding each other.

Their red-haired daughter, remembered for her love of people and nature, “didn’t have a bad day,” her father said Saturday.

She played girls basketball. She loved the Sedgwick County Zoo and Great Plains Nature Center.

One of the emergency responders gave them Shelby’s pendant with an “S.”

“That was so hard,” he said Saturday, choking back tears.

“I do want to talk about this,” he said.

“I want the lost life of my daughter to mean something.”

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