None of the four family members who drowned last week in Oregon's Henry Hagg Lake knew how to swim — and while the loved ones left behind may never know exactly what happened that tragic day, they don’t doubt any would have risked their lives to save the others.
“We find comfort in knowing that they are all close together now, like they were all close together before," said Ruperto Garcia, who lost his wife, Jova Ixtacua, his daughter, Gabriela Garcia, his son, Michael Garcia, and his 3-year-old grandson, Jeremy Scholl, near Sain Creek, west of Portland, on Aug. 25.
Police believe that one of the boys may have gotten into trouble in the lake, which has an uneven bottom marked by unexpected drop-offs that change from year to year, and the others drowned when they tried to save one of the others. None of the four were wearing a flotation device, and a medical examiner ruled all four deaths accidental.
Gabriela, 25, would often take little Jeremy to the lake, which is just a 25-minute drive from the house where the family has lived for 15 years. Sometimes Jova, 42, or Michael, 13, would join them.
But last week, Ruperto and Gabriela's sister, Maria Garcia, were at work and unaware their family had gone out to the lake — until neighbors called that night to say police had visited the home, and told them the boy’s body had been found. And while the family’s car was parked and belongings left at the lakeside, the other three were missing.
The other three bodies were recovered the next day. The sole survivor was Bear, Michael's dog that had been tied up next to the family's belongings near the lakeside.
Sgt. Bob Ray, a Washington County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said that while there are signposts advising people to wear life jackets and even a kiosk providing free flotation devices to visitors, authorities are looking for more ways to improve public safety. The bottom of Henry Hagg lake is pocked by sudden drop-offs that can send a swimmer in deeper water than they may expect.
"You undertake certain inherent dangers when you recreate in nature,” Ray said. "When people are boating or swimming in rivers or lakes they need to have access to life vests.”
Ray said the last drowning at Hagg Lake took place in 2008, when a man tried to swim across the lake in the same area. Prior to that, one other person drowned in 2006 after falling out of a small raft. There were no life vests in the boat and none of the other people in the raft knew how to swim.
Funeral services for the four family members are scheduled for Friday at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Hillsboro.
The family moved from Veracruz, Mexico, to Oregon 15 years ago to start a new life, Maria said. Her sister was an A student at Glencoe High School in Hillsboro and earned a scholarship at Portland State University. When she got pregnant with Jeremy, Gabriela decided to postpone getting her degree to support her son and her family. Maria said her sister was a hard worker.
"She worked two jobs, worked all the time, and when she wasn't working, she was taking care of Jeremy. But she never complained about working so hard," Maria said.
Their mother, Jova, was "like a second mom to Jeremy," she said. She loved taking care of everyone — cooking, driving and babysitting Jeremy, who would've turned 4 on Oct. 1.
“Everywhere he went people would enjoy him. He’d put a smile on your face,” said Maria.
The family opened a memorial fund for donations at Wells Fargo Bank under the name "Garcia Memorial Fund."