Richard French 7/2/94 Fire Lake Boating Drown

Visitor Dies In Fire Lake

By Hugh Curran, ADN 07/03/94

An 18-year-old North Carolina man visiting friends in Alaska drowned early Saturday morning when his canoe overturned in Fire Lake near Eagle River, the Anchorage Police Department said. Two others in the canoe were saved by a fast-acting resident of the lake who heard splashing, motored to the scene and pulled them from the water.

The body of Richard T. French was found at 2:15 a.m. by members of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, 45 minutes after French and two friends overturned in their canoe, police Lt. Tom Katkus said.

French and Kevin Whaley, 21, also from North Carolina, and Melanie Schacht, 21, from Wasilla, were 20 feet from the shore when the canoe overturned for unknown reasons, Katkus said. Whaley and Schacht clung to the canoe while French tried to swim for shore.

The accident took place in front of Lillian Polyefko's home. Polyefko said her son Michael, 35, was watching television downstairs when he heard a commotion.

"There's an island in the middle of Fire Lake where kids will pitch tents and camp during the holidays, so it tends to get noisy," Polyefko said. "But Michael heard a strange sound and went to the window with binoculars. That's when he realized they'd turned over."

Polyefko said her son got in his rubber raft with its outboard motor and quickly reached the canoe. The rest of the Polyefko family had gathered on the shore.

"The boy that drowned just lifted up his head and went straight down," Polyefko said. "Michael pulled the girl in by her hair and grabbed the boy who was at the canoe."

Fire volunteers arrived on scene promptly and joined other lake residents in searching the water for French.

"We had to stop the boy and girl because they wanted to go back in to find their friend," Polyefko said. "My daughter wrapped the girl in a blanket, but she was out of control, hysterical. The boy just wandered in shock." French's body was found in eight feet of water near the site where the canoe had turned over, Katkus said. Polyefko said none of the three were wearing life vests.

The accident occurred three days after a Mat-Su Borough man drowned in the Little Susitna River, reportedly after drinking several beers. Katkus would not say whether alcohol was suspected in Saturday morning's drowning. Katkus said the three had been pulled over while driving through Eagle River shortly before midnight, but refused to say what initiated the traffic stop. He said only that the unidentified driver did not appear intoxicated at the time.

Polyefko said her son and his boat would not have been home Saturday morning if he had not been forced to turn back from his fishing trip Friday afternoon. A tour bus that collided with a fishtailing boat on a trailer. "The only thing that saved those two kids was that Mike was forced to turn back," Polyefko said. "God works in wondrous ways."