Topeka man drowns at Pillsbury Crossing

MANHATTAN (KSNT) – What was meant to be a fun family outing ended in tragedy.

Twenty-one-year old Anthony Bernard Strange, Jr. of Topeka drowned Saturday evening while attempting to swim across Deep Creek at the Pillsbury Crossing Wildlife Area east of Manhattan.

An autopsy will be conducted, but alcohol does not appear to be a factor in the tragedy according to the Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism.

One witness tells Kansas First News the man drowned in the area near the cliffs at the end of the main park trail. Jennifer Keelty says she and her husband were kayaking and stopped to help search for the drowning victim. Keelty says the man’s pregnant fiancé pleaded for him to be found.

“We just kept going and her wails of desperate need it still haunts me,” Keelty told Kansas First News. “It’s an eerie echo. I just want to do something to help them and I can’t.”

The wildlife area is located about seven-miles from Manhattan and is popular with campers, kayakers and bird watchers.

Keelty and her husband were out for an afternoon with their family. They had left their children to play with friends and got in their kayak and took off. A little past the rope swing, they heard a boy yelling for his mother. The calls came closer and became more urgent. Keelty says they could hear him running on the roadway up above where they were on the water. They called to him through the brush that separated them and asked what was wrong. He said, “I need my mom, I need my mom…” Keelty and her husband then yelled at the people on the opposite side of the waterway, letting them know that there was someone who was hurt and drowning. Once they knew people had heard them, they began paddling furiously to reach the spot where the man went down. Keelty says everyone on the shore sprung into action.

Keelty says the first person who caught her eye was the drowning man’s fiance in the water to the side. She says the woman was crying, “Find him, find him!” She and her husband asked where he went down and began searching with two other men. Keelty says the man’s fiance and family were visibly distraught and overwhelmed. She says they tried to calm them between dives when they came up for air as they searched to no avail.

Keelty says as people called 911, they were driven to continue searching despite the passing time by the man’s fiance’s cries. When law enforcement arrived a half hour later, the searchers were told to stop according to Keelty. She says they wanted to continue searching for the family’s peace of mind but were told they couldn’t.

Within ten feet of shore the water is only about 4 feet deep but then drops off according to Keelty. She says as they dove, they used oars to try and touch the bottom and feel around but says they never reached.

According to her, the group had been jumping off a nearby cliff. At one point she says she was told they decided to swim back across the water to the other side. She thinks it’s at least 75 feet across. She believes he wasn’t a strong swimmer and partway across began flailing and was unable to stay above water. Keelty says a young boy who was swimming alongside him was helpless to do anything. She had a message for him: “I want him to know that he doesn’t need to blame himself. There is nothing he could have done. We all wish we could have done more,” she said through tears.

Keelty is hoping to find a way to set up an account or an online fundraiser for the man’s young family.

“She was so desperate. I don’t know what she’s going to do. She didn’t sound as if she knew what she was going to do. They’re just a brand new family starting out,” she said, choking back tears. “He’s gone. God’s called him home. God has a plan, but it’s not always easy to accept his plan.”

Keelty wanted to convey to the family that she is praying for all of them and encouraged them to be strong.

Sunday evening Keelty stopped back by the area to leave a small memorial and says she nearly witnessed another drowning.

“[I] warned a family of swimmers trying to cross, who promptly ignored me.” “[They] told me: “We know what happen yesterday, but we got something better on them.” and took off across…the last one across started yelling for help and flailing [in the water] but kept going after we (her family and I) started yelling instructions to her,” Keelty wrote in an email to Kansas First News.

“She calmed down and kept going, but I almost watched another swimmer with their family, go down in front of my eyes. She was the last one, by herself, without flotation, and swimming with her shoes in her hands. I couldn’t believe it. [I] about had to take off my shoes and jump in again…turns out she ended up losing just her shoes.”

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