3 men presumed drowned in Alberta over long weekend

Two men in their 20s and one man in his 30s are presumed drowned after falling into the water in Alberta over the weekend in separate incidents. 

Family watches from bank of Highwood River as crews search for 22-year-old

A team of three search Highwood River for a man who jumped from the ledge pictured. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

Two men in their 20s and one man in his 30s are presumed drowned after falling into the water in Alberta over the weekend in separate incidents. 

One man disappeared under water while swimming in Highwood River in Foothills County.

Another, who was 25, was paddleboarding with friends on Herbert Lake in Banff National Park when he fell in the water at 7:17 p.m. MT Sunday. He did not resurface, RCMP say.

A third man was last seen wearing a life jacket floating in the turbulent Clearwater River around 10:15 p.m. on Sunday, approximately 28 miles west of Clearwater Bridge.

Police say they located a vehicle and boat trailer near the area, but have not been able to contact the 34-year-old registered owner from Calgary. An aerial search has yet to locate the man or his boat.

The swimmer in the Highwood has been identified as Lual Ayach, 22, by family.

He was camping with friends at Nature's Hideaway Family Campground in De Winton, east of Okotoks, when he jumped into the river from a ledge around 8 p.m. Sunday, police say.

He surfaced for a moment but then went under water again and did not come back up.

His aunt, Sarah Ayach, said he could not swim.

She visited the swimming hole Monday afternoon because she wanted to see the last place he was.

"It's terrible, it's hard. I need support for my sister, who wanted to come here to see," she said. "We're scared if she comes here, she'll have a heart attack."

'Dead silence' since drowning

The campground was busy that night, according to staffer Natasha Koenning.

Other people leapt into the river to save Ayach but without success.

"The campground was all full of excitement and then all of a sudden, it was dead silence pretty much since then," Koenning said. "All the little children, a lot of families crying on the side of the berm, very, very concerned, very heartbroken."

One of his friends called home to break the news, the aunt said.

Foothills Fire Department Chief Jim Smith said the underwater rock structure and the current would have made rescue very challenging.

"Even the scuba divers won't go in because the undertow [is] so bad for them and they've got all the right equipment on," Smith said. "So I mean if you've got nothing on, it's even way worse."

Popular, challenging spot

Search crews focused on the area immediately around the ledge, under which is a cavern in nine-metre (30 feet) deep water.

The search team believes Ayach's body could be stuck in the cave, or held against the underwater cliff by the current.

Three men in a Foothills Fire Water Rescue boat circled the inlet and dragged hooks, hoping to latch onto the body. The water was so murky, crews couldn't see into the water and had to search by touch.

Divers from Central Alberta Rescue Diving Society were combing another part of the river.

Smith said his team has investigated many drownings in this spot over the years.

"We know when we get the call, this is a very unfortunate place," he said.

Preventing future deaths

Ayach's brother and uncle also watched the effort from the riverbank. The young man came from a big family who immigrated to Calgary from South Sudan in 2005, his aunt said.

As the fifth of eight children, he still lived at home in Calgary. His aunt said he did not drink alcohol and was often trusted to care for his cousins.

She said she questions if he would jump into the water, knowing he couldn't swim. So she's asking anyone with cellphone footage to send it to police.

The inlet is considered a popular jump spot for swimmers. The campground staffer said people are encouraged to wait to swim there until August, when the water level subsides. However, there are no signs on the public land.

"This place was known as 30-feet [deep]. It happened before. Why can't they put a sign there?" Sarah Ayach said. "If there's anything to be done to prevent this thing from happening, I would love to see that. I don't want to see another kid going down here."

Herbert Lake 

Search and rescue crews are also combing the area around Herbert Lake, which is described as being small with no current. Divers arrived in the afternoon to assist in hopes of finding the body of the missing paddleboarder, whose name has not been released.

The man wasn't wearing a lifejacket, an RCMP spokesperson said, and was not a strong swimmer. There was no indication impairment was a factor, she said.

With files from Reid Southwick, Sarah Rieger


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