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Help from heartache: Woman who tried to save teen from drowning, moved to help others

Posted at 4:20 PM, Jul 25, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-25 23:28:03-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was a Friday, July 6.

It was like any other day at Hillsdale Lake. Until it wasn't.

Stephanie Duston was there with her two daughters and her niece and nephew. They were at the Hillsdale Lake beach, floating out by the rope which surrounds the swimming area.

She recorded a video of the kids to send to her sister.

In the background, unnoticed at the time, there were some boys in the water. Boys she would soon learn more about.

You can see the boys playing along the floating rope in Duston's video. One doing flips. They're laughing, having fun.

One boy can be seen holding onto the rope, his face barely above water. The video ends, and minutes later his friend started yelling for help.

"I heard the yell, ‘help,’ very loudly," recalled Duston.

At first, she thought they were wrestling and she thought it wasn't smart to yell help.

"Then, right after that, there was three succession yells for help. More desperate," she said.

That's when she realized it wasn't a joke.

The boy had gone under. His friend was trying to help, but struggling, too. Duston jumped in. So did another man who'd been on a blue float nearby.

"And I just swam," she stared off, remembering the scene. Tears welled in her eyes. As she wiped her eyes, she added, "I just swam as hard as I could."

They both headed for the boy. Duston from her direction, the other guy from his. Both swimming toward where the boy was struggling. Although it took just seconds, this moment slows down in Duston's mind. 

They couldn't get to him.

"He went under and he was just gone," she said.

They both recall seeing him come up for what would be his last breath and the swirling circle of water.

When Duston and the man got to the area where they'd seen the boy, they reached into the water with their arms. Desperate jabs into the brown water. They kicked their feet hoping to feel something. Nothing.

One grabbed an oar. One grabbed goggles.


He was gone.

Several hours later, a dive team pulled the boy's body from the water.

He was 17-year-old Om Kee Hata. He did not know how to swim. He was there that day with friends he'd met playing soccer.

Om Kee's friend Peter is a good swimmer. He was there with the boys that day.

Peter's English is good, but a little broken. It's clear his heart is broken, too. Even if he doesn't fully understand his emotions.

Peter described calling for help and trying to push Om Kee to the surface.

"I saw him, and I call for help. And I got to him. He don't know how to swim, so I go from the bottom and I push him. When I push him I think he can... (he takes his hand and draws it from his lips in a gesture of air moving out)... breathe," he said.

Peter had swum under Om Kee as Om Kee struggled in an attempt to push him up to the surface. He tried to save his friend. 

"I could not save him. Is too hard," he said, eyes turning down.

Om Kee's mom, Ling Len Hata, fled Myanmar a year ago with her five children. Om Kee was the oldest, and without their father here, he was the man of the house. Her other boys are 14, 11, 6 and her daughter is 2.

The 11-year-old, Om Gai, helped translate for his mother.

"She say she try to stay happy and she always pray," he translated.

One doesn't need a translator to recognize Hata's grief. She's stoic at first. Seemingly unmoved - maybe numb - by reality and struggle, and what must have been a very difficult life to flee to another country to raise your children.

When asked what she misses most, her emotions flowed.

Her son responded for her, “when he helped my mom.”

Hata's face tightened, tears filled her eyes. One by one, the tears fell.

Om Kee’s friends and family describe him as always happy. They said he smiled constantly and was always upbeat.

Peter said he misses his friend’s laugh. He giggles just thinking about it.

“He called me like, ‘Peter! Let’s go! Let’s go! Hahahaha.’ I like he laugh like that. I cannot still forget it. His laugh and his smile face,” said Peter.

The Red Cross said statistics show people believe they are better swimmers than they actually are. The survey, conducted for the Red Cross, found that while 80 percent of Americans said they could swim, only 56 percent of the self-described swimmers can perform all five of the basic skills that could save their life in the water.

These critical water safety skills, also known as “water competency,” are the ability to:

  • Step or jump into the water over your head.
  • Return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute.
  • Turn around in a full circle and find an exit.
  • Swim 25 yards to the exit.
  • Exit from the water (if in a pool, be able to exit without using the ladder).

Unfortunately, Om Kee's death is now part of some disturbing statistics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of people who die from drowning are male.

More than half of drownings happen in natural water settings - like lakes.

Most boys and men who admit they can't swim feel they'll be okay in the water.

Most don't realize the danger.

Om Kee did not realize the danger.

Duston now knows so much more about the boy in her video. She thinks about him every day. She's now met his family and is working to help them in any way she can.

She's determined to do something in Om Kee's honor.

"It kept running through my head. Out of over 20 boys out there, only like three of them could swim," she said.

She's learned it's common that refugees do not know how to swim.

"I can do something about that," she said with determination.

Next week, Duston starts training to become a certified swim instructor. She'll teach refugees to swim at no charge.

There is a GoFundMe page set up for the boy's family.