Off the coast of a western New York beach Wednesday, amid the turbulent currents of Lake Erie, a mother died trying to save the child whom friends said was her life.
Kristen L. Stefan, 37, of Bethel Park, drowned after swimming out to rescue her son Tyler, 9, and his friend Benjamin, 8, after they drifted into deep water near Shore Haven Beach in Westfield, N.Y., about 30 miles east of Erie, Pa. Both boys survived.
“Her life revolved around her family. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that that is the way she passed,” friend Liz Boni, 43, of Canonsburg said Thursday. “She probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
That afternoon, Mrs. Stefan offered to baby-sit her friend Erin Bignell’s sons, Benjamin and Eli, while Mrs. Bignell took a relative to a hospital. Both families were vacationing near the beach and had planned a play date with their children for later that day.
While the boys were swimming and playing with an inner tube about 2:30 p.m., winds swept Tyler and Benjamin into deeper water, the Chautauqua County sheriff’s office said.
Benjamin told his mother that Tyler panicked when he couldn’t touch the ground, and Mrs. Stefan, watching from ashore, jumped in after them.
The currents and wind caused the three to stray to a cove in the rocky cliff shore line, where they ditched the float and tried to climb to safety.
Benjamin successfully scaled the cliff, but Tyler fell back into the water. His mother tried once more to help him.
“My son said he just saw her hair disappear under the water,” Mrs. Bignell, 35, of Canonsburg, said.
At a nearby beach, Matt Ward, 22, heard the commotion and ran over to see a boy struggling in the lake as emergency crews mobilized. An experienced swimmer from Westfield, Mr. Ward jumped into a creek bed and raced for Tyler, who was floating on his back, about 100 or 150 feet from shore.
“I grabbed him, and I said, ‘Kick with me if you can.’ ”
Tyler managed to move his legs, and the two reached the lakefront.
Mr. Ward said the cliff was a place where the neighborhood children used to jump from then mount. It had steepened over the years, and lately, the lake’s currents had been rough, he said.
“I was just worried that I wasn’t getting to him soon enough,” Mr. Ward said. “That’s all that was in my mind.”
Tyler was treated for hypothermia at the local hospital, then a medical helicopter flew him to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, where Mrs. Bignell said doctors are watching him for signs of pneumonia and infection.
Mrs. Stefan was pronounced dead at the hospital emergency room.
Benjamin was not injured.
A stay-at-home mother, Mrs. Stefan was a member of the Ministry of Mothers Sharing group at St. Patrick’s in Canonsburg and a runner who just finished her first half-marathon.
Earlier this year, in one demonstration of her thoughtfulness, she brought meals to a MOMS member whose husband was killed in a car crash, friends said.
Her husband, Todd, who was at the beach during the accident Wednesday, is the band director at North Allegheny Senior High School.
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944. First Published July 10, 2014 12:00 AM