“It hit like 81 degrees that day, so we figured, lets do something fun,” said freshman Chris McGrath, one of the four students found on the raft. “We just took it to the next level, so that was our plan; we just wanted to have some fun. I mean we brought on a Bose handheld Bluetooth speaker, we were just chilling out there listening to Jack Johnson the whole time, just having a good time watching the sunset.”
On April 13, McGrath, Sach Sanmugaraja, Joe Governale and Dan Casey, all currently attending Oswego State, decided to buy a $40 raft from the local Wal-Mart. After classes, they all decided as a group that they wanted to do something adventurous, as well as get outside and enjoy the sunny weather.
“It just so happened that one of our member’s was at Rudy’s down by the shore having ice cream with her spouse,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Trevor Shiel, one of the coast guards sent out on the dispatch. “She had noticed the raft floating off the shoreline, as well as that the wind was blowing into the lake. She called our station and said that it didn’t look like a good situation, but that there was no distress at this time. She wanted to wait, and was going be there for a minute more so she was going to watch them for a while.”
Over the course of that time, the students continued to drift further out and down the shoreline in their raft. The situation was well documented as Sanmugaraja was continuously staying in contact with two friends on shore, using Twitter and Snapchat to record the day’s activities.
“I was the kid basically tweeting and snapchatting it, I think people thought we were joking at first,” Sanmugaraja said. “They probably thought we were just like 20 feet out, but no we were probably a good one or two-miles out.”
Due to social media, the story spread across the Oswego State campus very quickly. A lot of the details of the event were lost or blown out of proportion due to gossip and rumors following the day’s events.
It’s only when it started to turn from day to night and the shoreline started to get further away did people start to get worried.
“Our friends, Kelsey Neal and Brittany Cogan, were the ones on shore,” McGrath said. “A lady was there near them who actually worked for the coast guard. They watched us take off and they were actually the ones who told the lady to call the coast guard in.”
Once the coast guard was called, they immediately contacted the Oswego City Fire Department and dispatched a rescue boat of their own. When the Coast Guard arrived at the scene shortly after, they found the four students drifting aimlessly.
While not under any obvious or immediate distress, they were in a semi-dangerous situation. Even though the air temperatures had reached around 80 degrees that day, the water temperature in Lake Ontario was around 39 degrees, as reported by the Coast Guard.
“The Coast Guard said they could barely see us, the only thing they could see was one of our friends was wearing a white shirt,” Sanmugaraja said. “We were waving our paddles and everything once we saw them, but our paddles and the raft were both blue so it kind of just blended in.”
The Coast Guard reported finding all four students without life jackets when they arrived on the scene. Life jackets are a required accessory when on the water by New York state law. They did have paddles on board, the raft as well as backpacks with various food and supplies.
“We basically did some boater education when we got back to the station; I told them that what they did was very, very dumb,” Officer Shiel said. “They definitely didn’t think about what was really happening, it was kind of was a knee jerk reaction. Because the weather was so nice I assume they just wanted to go enjoy the weather, but I don’t think they understood the severity of the situation.”
Oswego State promptly released a statement through email the following morning on Tuesday April 14. This email was sent to all of the student body as a reminder as to just how dangerous Lake Ontario and surrounding waters can be at this time of the year.
“Lake Ontario is powerful, unpredictable and cold, especially during winter and early spring,” the campus wide announcement email read. “The lake can be extremely hazardous due to the unpredictability of wind and currents. Do not venture out on the water in any sort of raft or boat; the water temperature is barely above freezing and submersion in the lake could be deadly. Do not venture near the water; the severe winter has eroded parts of the shoreline, making it unsafe. As always, the breakwater wall at the Oswego harbor is unsafe in all weather.”
“I think they really did appreciate what we did, but they didn’t understand how severe the situation actually was, maybe, and hopefully they do now,” Officer Shiel said. “It could’ve easily been four dead students versus four students that are alive today. But as young adults, everyone thinks they’re invincible, and that’s the mentality I suspect that they had. Seriously wear your life jackets, I hope the rest of SUNY Oswego understands how dangerous the Lake can be now.”