Friend nearly died trying to save BYU-Idaho student who drowned on the Teton River

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Thomas Calvin Willie | Courtesy Image

ST. ANTHONY (BYU-Idaho Scroll) — Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Calvin Willie of Malad, and a freshman at Brigham Young University-Idaho studying agribusiness drowned on Friday, June 14, after attempting to float on a tube down the Teton River.

Willie, who also went by “Cal,” was floating down the Teton River with 10 other people Friday near Monkey Rock. He went over a diversion dam and was caught in fast-moving water and drowned. Law enforcement is still searching for his body.

Jean-Luc Lazoore, a sophomore studying international studies, was one of the 10 others floating with Willie. He said the river appeared safe and calm the entire way until they saw the diversion dam. Another group member and Willie’s best friend, Robert Wray, a sophomore studying accounting, exited the water to examine the drop. Wray then warned the group they should get out of the water to avoid the dam.

“By that time, most of us were able to get out,” Lazoore said. “Some of us were really struggling to get out on time. The water was starting to pick up … but Cal was already too close.”

Lazoore said Willie ditched his tube in an effort to escape to the bank along with the other group members but was unable to.

“His last words over the falls were ‘It’ll be okay, I’ll be fine,'” Lazoore said.

Amylee Baldwin, a freshman studying communication, was also floating with Willie that day on the Teton River.

“We didn’t realize how urgent it was because we thought the waterfall would just shoot him out,” Baldwin said.

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Lazoore said for the first 10 to 15 minutes, Willie swam against currents with no indication he was in trouble. However, the strength of the current prevented Willie from escaping.

Another group member called authorities and explained their location once they realized the seriousness of the situation.

“We didn’t even have service but the call still went through,” Baldwin said.

Lazoore said by the time the deputies arrived, Willie was still treading water and fighting “huge logs” that fell over the dam. The group tried to pull Willie out of the water using a long tree branch, their tubes and ropes the sheriff’s department brought. Other members of the group ran to the nearest home for more help.

“Cal yelled for help once and that’s when (Michael Fowler, a BYU-Idaho freshman) and Robby really took charge,” Lazoore said. “Robby decided he was going to go in after (Willie) with the tube tied to a rope.”

Baldwin and Lazoore explained, Wray entered into the water above the falls and floated towards the diversion dam. Seconds before going over the falls, Willie was pulled under the water and did not resurface.

Wray spent 10 minutes looking for Willie before Fowler began pulling him out with the rope and tube.

Lazoore said during his efforts to save Willie, Wray himself was sucked under the falls and became unattached from the tube. He resurfaced near Fowler, who was then able to slide down the rope and tie it to Wray, who lost consciousness. Wray has since been released from the hospital and remains in constant contact with search and rescue teams.

“He almost died trying to save Cal’s life,” Baldwin said. “They had to pull Robby out and Michael saved Robby’s life.”

Fremont County Search and Rescue, Bonneville County Swift Water Rescue and Bingham County Swift Water Rescue are continuing to search for Willie’s body.

“They are deploying sonar units,” Fremont County Sheriff Len Humphries said. “If possible, they’ll put divers in the water.”

He said if they are unable to locate Willie’s body Monday, they will have to back off searching and wait for his body to naturally float to the surface. This process could take a week or more.

“We’ll continue to check the river, but there’s not a lot we can do as long as he’s under the water,” Humphries told EastIdahoNews.com.

Lazoore and Baldwin hope that as a result of this incident, warning signs for the diversion dam will be posted for people who aren’t locals looking to float the river.

They had no indication of the danger due to the water being slow-flowing and calm.

“It was all very innocent,” Baldwin said. “Nothing was wrong about floating the river and it was a really fun day. We just wish there were warnings of the diversion dam. We just want people to know it’s not safe.”

This article was originally published by the BYU-Idaho Scroll. It is used here with permission.

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