PIERSON TOWNSHIP – Tragedy struck on the first day of spring break for Tri County Area Schools when three high school students were involved in a boating accident in the early morning hours.
Montcalm County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to Little Whitefish Lake in Pierson Township at about 12:30 a.m. Friday.
Dalton Gustinis, Nathan Mackenzie and David Vandyke, all 16-year-old students at Tri County High School, launched a 14-foot aluminum boat at the public boat launch. A short time later, the boat began to take on water and capsized, according to deputies.
The teenagers attempted to swim back to the boat launch but Gustinis was separated from Mackenzie and VanDyke. When the two teenagers returned to shore, they discovered their friend was missing.
None of the teens were wearing lifejackets.
The Sheriff’s Office dive and rescue teams responded to the scene to search for Gustinis. A mobile command center at the public access was set up by deputies as they searched the lake throughout the night with patrol boats and divers. An AeroMed helicopter assisted with a high power search light to comb the lake.
The Kent County Sheriff’s Office arrived late this morning to assist exhausted Montcalm County officers.
Gustinis hast not yet been found.
Montcalm County Undersheriff Mark Bellinger said officers would search until dark tonight, then return at first light Saturday.
“Today’s weather really hampered our rescue crews and divers,” Bellinger said. “They encountered thunder, lightning, rain, sleet and snowflakes. The sheriff’s department would like to bring closure to the victim’s family and friends.”
Tri County teenagers huddled quietly at the scene, trying to stay warm from the cold, drizzling rain by wearing hoodies and standing under umbrellas.
Michael and Nick Flintoff drove from Morley to Little Whitefish Lake to check on their friends. The brothers attend Tri County High School with Gustinis, Mackenzie and VanDyke.
“It’s scary,” said Michael Flintoff, 17. “Spring break just started up. It was supposed to be fun.”
Tri County High School was opened from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday as a refuge where students could warm up from the cold, eat pizza and talk to school counselors. Superintendent Al Cumings said school staff convened early Friday morning to plan the day.
“I’m relieved the two boys (Mackenzie and Vandyke) are OK, but I’m just so concerned about the third boy (Gustinis),” Cumings said. “You can see the relationships the boys had just by how many students who were willing to come and stand out in the cold rain and wait for information about their friend.”
Cumings said Central Office will be open from 9 a.m. to noon Monday for anyone who wants to talk to a counselor or staff member. Students will return to school from spring break on April 9.
“Our community has really pulled together in this situation,” Cumings said. “Just the heart of the community comes alive. In a close knit community like this, you especially see support amongst the students. It’s one of the great things about being in a close community like Tri County.”
Tri County High School Principal Kurt Mabie has known Gustinis, Mackenzie and Vandyke since he was the middle school principal and the boys were in middle school.
“They were doing something that they liked to do, being outside and fishing,” Mabie said of the three teens. ” This isn’t supposed to happen to kids. Life is fragile. As a parent, as a person, I think everyone will always hope until the last minute (that Gustinis survived) until there’s evidence otherwise.”
Mabie said his staff and students are still reeling from the unexpected death of longtime high school social worker Lori Lynch on March 17.
“The kids feel horrendous,” he said. “One of their friends is gone. Just like any family we pull together. We’ll get through this as a family. We’ve got a great team here at the school and the sheriff’s office has just been wonderful. I’m awful proud of the community here. I’m awful proud of Montcalm County.”
Jorge Ballivian of Sand Lake is the youth pastor at Grace Community Church in Howard City. He visited the boat launch site at the lake and the high school multiple times Friday, helping counsel students and family members of the three boys.
Ballivian spoke with Dalton Gustinis’ mother as she waited for news about her son.
“She was heartbroken, of course,” Ballivian said. “All she said was, ‘I want to have my baby back.’”
Ballivian spoke with Mackenzie and Vandyke as well, both of whom tried to assist search and rescue efforts as best as they could.
“David and Nathan are devastated,” Ballivian said. “Many of the kids I talked to were freshman and they just didn’t know what to say. They were just quiet and watching.”
Gustinis was by all accounts a popular and well-liked student at Tri County High School. His Facebook page was filled Friday with messages of hope from his friends.
Many of the messages simply said, “Dalton, come home.”