PIERSON TOWNSHIP — The Tri County Area Schools community has come together to mourn the death of a Pierson teenager who drowned in a fishing accident in Little Whitefish Lake.
Sheriff’s divers recovered the body of Dalton Gustinis at 2 p.m. on Saturday — 38 hours after he disappeared.
Montcalm County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to Little Whitefish Lake in Pierson Township at about 12:30 a.m. on Friday.
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 earlier that night. A short time later, the boat began to take on water and capsized.
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.
Kent County and Ottawa County sheriff’s officials assisted Montcalm County in search and recovery efforts. Divers searched the area until dusk the next evening, then returned at 8 a.m. on Saturday.
Gustinis was located about 300 yards southwest of the boat launch in the center of the lake in about 35 feet of water Saturday afternoon, according to Montcalm County Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Russell. Divers from Kent, Montcalm and Ottawa counties recovered Gustinis after using sonar equipment to locate his body.
Gustinis was wearing heavy work boots, which likely made it even more difficult to swim in the cold water.
Russell said Montcalm County Emergency Medical Services transported Gustinis’ body to a secluded location Saturday afternoon where Gustinis’ family was able to say goodbye to the 16-year-old and begin to find some closure.
“This was a big operation,” Russell said. “We couldn’t have done it with their (Kent County and Ottawa County) manpower and technology. I’m not sure with the size of this lake we would have had the resources and technology to make the recovery by ourselves.
“It’s a lot of relief for the family and for our guys as well.”
Gustinis’ family and friends are remembering the teen as good-natured, hard-working and caring. He loved the outdoors, his cat Psychosis (nicknamed Psych), giving foot rubs to his mother Sherry Gustinis Quick and listening to country music. One of the teen’s favorite songs was “Boondocks” by Little Big Town.
Cathy Nienhuis of Muskegon spoke on behalf of her sister — Gustinis’ mother — on Sunday night as family and friends gathered at Gustinis’ home to laugh and to cry over memories of the teen. Nienhuis said “hundreds and hundreds of people” have reached out to the family since the accident.
“A couple came up to the lake yesterday (Saturday) from Grand Rapids,” Nienhuis said. “They had lost their son two weeks ago. He was 16 too. They gave us flowers. It was just so touching.”
Local youths attended a candlelight vigil in honor of their lost friend Friday — the first day of spring break for Tri County students. Tri County’s Central Office in Sand Lake will be open from 9 a.m. to noon today for anyone wanting to talk to school counselors or staff.
Last week, Gustinis had told his mother he would chop wood for her during spring break.
“Today, 20 or 25 of his friends came here and they got almost all the wood done,” said Nienhuis on Sunday. “His uncle Dan brought the wood splitter and they just went to town. All of a sudden all these kids started coming in cars and bringing food and everything.”
Audrey Ellis is a longtime friend of Gustinis’ family. Her son Kevin, 14, shared a bedroom with Gustinis in Quick’s home, where Ellis also resides.
“I never met any kid who cared so much about other people,” Ellis said. “He was always there for his friends and family. He was just a really good kid, a really awesome kid.”
Memorial services for Gustinis are being planned for after spring break, which is this week. His Facebook page is filled with loving messages from friends.
“I think God needed an angel to watch over Tri County,” one friend wrote. “God needed an angel to help everyone through their hard times. God needed an angel to wake everyone up and show them how fast something that you love can be taken away. For some reason God needed Dalton to be this angel.”