Six months after fatal fishing trip, families have few answers to what happened on lakeWritten by Amanda Tindall | | firstname.lastname@example.org
At about 2 p.m. April 16, a group of close friends — practically family — left the shores of Lake Erie to begin a fishing trip.
Within about four hours, they had caught their limit and started back.
None were seen alive again.
About all that’s known for sure is Bryan Huff, 31, Amy Santus, 33, Andrew Rose, 33, and Paige Widmer, 16, spent their last hours doing something they all loved: fishing.
At 4 p.m., Myranda Gerity texted her cousin Paige and they had a short conversation about what they were doing.
At 4:30 p.m., Andy’s boss at Home Slice Pizza in Toledo called him to say he wouldn’t be needed at work that night.
Around 6 p.m., the group had caught their maximum allotted number of fish and posted a video of the final catch.
At 6:15 p.m., Bryan called his father to say the group was on its way back.
At 6:30 p.m., Andy’s friend Ben DeWit called about dinner plans they’d made. Andy said he’d gone fishing and would probably be late.
DeWit was the last person to speak with anyone on the boat.
By 9 p.m., family members began to worry and started calling around.
The boat was reported overdue at 2 a.m. April 17 and by 3 a.m. the Coast Guard began a search that, for some families, would last weeks.
Shortly after 6:30 a.m., the boat, a 21-foot Tracker Tundra, was found empty, sitting bow up but with minimal damage, according to an investigation report from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).
The search continued throughout the day as family members gathered at Turtle Point Marina in Oak Harbor, waiting for any word about their loved ones.
Around 11 a.m., the bodies of Paige and Amy were recovered. Both women were wearing life jackets; Paige’s was unzipped.
It would be almost three more weeks before Bryan’s body was discovered; two days after that, Andy’s body was found.
After 22 days of waiting, Michele Rose planned her son’s funeral around the theme “Gone Fishing.” Approximately 200 people gathered to eat the fish and venison Andy had saved in his freezers.
“Everything came full circle,” Michele wrote in an email to Toledo Free Press.
As a child, sandy-haired, blue-eyed Andy would waddle down to the nearest pond to fish with his babysitters. As he grew up, he dreamed of being a game warden. Even as a young boy, he had the patience to pursue fishing all the time, his mother said.
“Every once in a while he had a trip that was so special that kept him wanting to go back again and again and again, for the rest of his life,” Michele said. “He was hooked, even when the fish weren’t.”
After graduating from Maumee High School, Rose went to college for a bit but decided not to continue and went into modeling instead. He was good-looking and always had women interested in him, DeWit said.
“He had his modeling days where he was a model down in Miami and all of that,” DeWit said. “He’d tell me all the stories of all the things he did. ‘I hung out with Pharrell and we went out on his boat.’ And he’d hang out with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. ‘I got picked up from the hotel in a Bentley that was waiting for me.’ Then he’d show all the pictures to back it up.”
But after struggling to maintain a steady income in modeling, Michele said, Andy decided to come home to Ohio. He began working as an interior home remodeler, combining skills learned from his mother, an interior decorator, and his grandfather, a carpenter and tradesman. One of his projects was featured in a Better Homes and Gardens issue on kitchens and baths.
DeWit met Andy when they worked together at Don Pablo’s after Andy’s return to Ohio. DeWit said Andy was his best friend and godfather to his 6-year-old son, Kamden. The pair liked to go wakeboarding and skiing on DeWit’s boat.
“He was a great guy,” DeWit said. “I have two children. He’d come and take them out to do things. My kids loved and adored him, and they’d drop what they were doing and jump into his arms when he came in the door.”
Michele described her son as someone who had many friends and liked to stay active.
“Andy was an easy-going, T-shirt and jeans type of guy,” she wrote. “Although he took pleasure in going out and trying new restaurants, he was just as keen enjoying the simple comforts of a grilled meal right in his backyard. Andy’s athletic build was evidence of his lifelong pursuit of health and balance; he worked out regularly.”
Matt Brown, Andy’s boss at Home Slice Pizza, said Andy was a people person who was always going on to the next adventure.
“It just came as such a shock,” Brown said. “With Andy, he took care of his body, he liked being outdoors. He was always out with his dog or doing something active.
“The biggest thing about Andy was that he had a thirst for life. He was always doing something. He was always looking to help.”
Brown had told Andy he might need someone to cover a shift April 16, but called around 4:30 p.m. to let him know he didn’t need to come in.
“He said, ‘Well, that’s great because I’m out fishing, so I wouldn’t have been able to make it in,’” Brown said.
DeWit said about every other Wednesday, he and Andy would get sushi from Spicy Tuna in Holland. They had talked about meeting there April 16.
“He wasn’t responding to my texts,” DeWit said. “It was just very odd for him.”
“Hey, what time,” DeWit texted.
“?” He sent in the next text.
Still no response.
DeWit called, and Andy answered his phone.
“Hey, sorry man,” he told DeWit. “I ended up going fishing last minute. I’m going to be late. I can hit you up when I get back.”
DeWit said it wasn’t a problem, that he could do something else.
That would be the last time anyone heard from Andy, Bryan, Amy or Paige.
Both DeWit and Michele said the waiting process was difficult.
“It was just never-ending agony,” DeWit said. “It was scary [wondering] if we were going to find him, when we were going to find him. It wasn’t the normal grieving process. It was so challenging for his mother.”
DeWit said pockets of Andy’s friends would have dinners and get-togethers while they waited for news. Many of them still keep in touch with his mother, he said.
Michele raised her son as a single mother and said the two had a close relationship.
“The unimaginable things that I would never dare think about now consume my every thought,” Michele said. “Losing a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. Grief that follows is a lonely road.”
Bryan Huff was also a fisherman from a young age. His father, Ralph “Butch” Huff, would take him out fishing. It was what they both loved to do, he said.
“He would say, ‘Dad, can I fillet it?’ And I said, ‘No, the knife’s too sharp,’” Butch said. “So I took him to the fair and he was maybe 4 or 5 years old and he caught some goldfish. The next morning, I woke up and my wife said, ‘You gotta get down here and see this.’ I go downstairs and he’s at the kitchen table. He had taken a butter knife and filleted his goldfish.”
Bryan’s sister Kimberly Hawkins said their father taught Bryan a tremendous amount about hunting and fishing.
“Bryan dedicated his life to the outdoors since he was a very young child,” Hawkins wrote in an email to Toledo Free Press. “My dad showed him the ropes and guided him through many fishing and hunting trips and experiences, which built my brother to be the amazing outdoorsman he was. It was more than a passion to him.”
Bryan was known to be an experienced boater.
“That was the hardest part,” Huff said. “He was very experienced out there.”
Hawkins said she and Bryan bonded through his passion for boating and her work at Tracker Marine Boat Center at Bass Pro Shops. Bryan would call, text or stop into the shop weekly, if not daily, to talk about boating products.
“It usually would start as a prank of him calling my work phone and changing his voice, and I would fall for it every time,” Hawkins said. “That is exactly the person he was. Always joking around and playing pranks, which I truly, 100 percent, believe he picked up from our father. He was the master of pranks. And he had the best poker face you’ve ever seen to back them up. He could impersonate voices to disguise his own just to get a laugh.”
Hawkins said her brother played a big role in her wedding as her husband Ron’s best man.
“They shared an everlasting friendship that started in high school, that my husband will forever remember and cherish,” Hawkins said. “Ron was introduced to many things and experiences because of Bryan. They were fishing and hunting brothers as well as brothers-in-law.”
With Amy, his girlfriend, Bryan owned Oak Harbor’s Black Swamp Ohio Outdoors, a hunting and fishing business. Now his father runs the business.
“They got the lease kind of late in the year, and they didn’t have time to plant their marshes like they’re supposed to be,” Huff said. “His and Amy’s dream was to put an addition on the lodge, with the marshes all planted and with new duck blinds. We got the new addition up, we got new showers and the marshes all planted.”
The business’ Facebook page is full of commemorations and memories of Amy and Bryan from those who hunt and fish at the lodge.
“Bryan knew everybody. Everyone knew Bryan,” Huff said. “At his showing, so many people showed up they couldn’t even get in the place. There was no place to park. People parked at the McDonald’s across the street. I remember the funeral home saying they only printed about 200 of the cards that they’d pass out. They were up to 1,000 of the memorial cards.”
“Though my family has faced the severe pain and heartache of losing our brother and son in such a tragic accident, we have also been overwhelmed to learn of all the people Bryan has touched and impacted during his life here on Earth,” Hawkins said. “Every time I drive to or near the lake, I think of Bryan’s life, and all the memories it holds. What a wonderful life he lived in his 31 years.”
Amy and Bryan going out on the boat was a common occurrence, their family and friends said.
Hawkins said the two would hunt and fish together, and Bryan taught Amy what he knew.
“I don’t know exactly when Bryan met her,” Huff said. “But these guys were two peas in a pod. Amy loved to fish, and Bryan got her into the hunting part of it.”
Amy was finishing up her nurse practitioner degree. She and Bryan lived together in Perrysburg and were “inseparable,” Huff said.
In August, Mercy St. Charles Hospital installed a memorial for Amy in honor of the work she did on staff there.
“It’s been tough on all of us,” said her father Albert Santus. “Employers, family, friends. It’s been really tough. I prefer not to speak about it.”
According to friends, Amy and Bryan were a great match.
“When Amy came into Bryan’s life romantically, we could all see a change in him,” Hawkins said. “I truly believe that she gave him an outlook on life that had never crossed his mind before. He was happy and it showed. They were perfect for each other. Balanced each other out. They were soul mates.”
Sixteen-year-old Paige Widmer, who lived in Leesville, South Carolina, with her mother, looked up to Amy, said Gerity.
“She just adored Amy,” Gerity said. “On the way to Ohio, that’s all Paige talked about was going fishing with Amy. She really looked up to her.”
Paige would often travel to Ohio to visit her father, Troy Widmer, who is married to Amy’s sister.
Gerity described Paige as “free-spirited” and nonconfrontational. Although the two were cousins, they were more like sisters, Gerity said.
Usually, Gerity said, she and Paige would cry when Paige had to leave. This last trip back to Ohio, however, Gerity had the chance to tag along.
She almost went with the group on the April 16 fishing trip, but decided to have dinner with her aunt instead. The last time she saw her cousin — her sister, as she referred to Paige — was that day at noon.
“She was just so full of life,” Paige’s mother Kelly Wade said. “She was always at the center of attention and loved being around everyone, even as a small child. She was always giving to those in need.”
Some of her favorite things to do were playing volleyball and spending time with her family and friends.
“She was always making sure her friends were OK,” Gerity said. “She was in sports medicine, and she just wanted to care for people.”
Wade said Paige’s favorite subject was math, and she was heavily involved with volleyball, track, chorus and a club involving medical work.
She did sports medicine to get familiarized with the work, Wade said. She was planning to start her clinicals this year.
Paige also had a great relationship with her brother, J.J.; the two would often go fishing or play basketball together.
“They were very close,” Wade said. “They did everything together growing up. He couldn’t wait for her to drive so she could be his chauffeur. That’s what he’d always say.”
Wade said she and her daughter were best friends.
“She was my rock,” Wade said. “She was very mature for her age. A lot of people would tell you that.
“Even though Paige came from a blended family — mom, dad, stepdad, stepmom — we were all very close and did a lot of things together,” she said. “For our kids, this was important.”
By the end of the day April 17, two of the boaters had been found dead and two more were still missing.
That day, the investigation was handed over to the ODNR Watercraft Division.
When search crews found the boat, Vernon Meinke, owner of Meinke Marina in Curtice, went out to secure it.
“The boat was partially submerged,” Meinke said in his statement. “Three feet of the bow was sticking out of the water. The engines were banging on the reef bottom.”
Yet despite the recovery of the boat and — eventually — all four bodies, questions still lingered in the families’ minds. In July, the ODNR released its report. The same word is repeated throughout.
“Type of Incident: Unknown”
“Time of Incident: Unknown”
“Contributing Factors: Unknown”
“Estimated Speed: Unknown”
“Due to the fact that everyone on board died and there were no witnesses to the accident, the circumstances surrounding the accident are unknown,” the report concluded.
All four boaters drowned, Ottawa County Coroner Dr. Daniel Cadigan said. There was no trauma to any of the bodies and alcohol was not a factor, according to the report.
Rodney Althaas, a member of the Ottawa County Sheriff’s dive team, said the water temperature at the time of his dive was 47 degrees.
“In this instance, their body temperature cooled enough for hypothermia to set in,” Cadigan said. “Even though they died from drowning.”
Cadigan said this is a major issue in many drownings, because life jackets that don’t fit properly or support the head cannot protect the wearer.
The boat motor’s black box — an event data recorder like the ones found in airplanes — was disabled at the time it capsized so the speed and motion of the boat is unknown. The boat’s GPS showed it was traveling west, then took a 90-degree turn south for 24 feet. The empty boat was recovered about three-fourths of a mile west of that last recorded position.
One thing in the report is clear: “Activity at Time of Incident: Fishing.”
The thing that brought them together, and became their last shared activity on Earth.