FAIRFIELD -- A Bridgeport family crossed two small streams to get to an inviting, sandy peninsula in the northern part of Lake Mohegan Tuesday afternoon, looking for a place to escape the heat. But the mother of 10-year-old Catherine Perez Trujillo said they weren't aware of the dangerous waters waiting for them there.
Perez Trujillo drowned Tuesday evening after struggling in water that is deeper than it appears.
The northern area of the lake where Perez Trujillo, of Iranistan Avenue, was swimming with other family members, including her mother, is outside the designated swimming area at the lake. Signs posted about every 20 feet in the parking lot at the entrances to hiking trails and picnicking areas list 13 rules for the open space property, including "no swimming."
Camelia Trujillo, the girl's mother, said she didn't see the signs.
"They didn't know it was off limits" said Edgar Rodriguez, the funeral director at Luz de Paz Funeral Home, speaking on behalf of the family. "There were other people in the area who also seemed unaware that it was off limits."
Although a small sandy area is located near where Perez Trujillo drowned, police and town officials say it is not safe to swim there.
"That's what boggles their minds," said Rodriguez, who spent Wednesday morning with the family, helping them organize funeral services for their daughter. "It looks like a beach area. There is sand. Why would they think otherwise? Nothing alerted them that they weren't supposed to swim or play there."
Police Chief Gary MacNamara said the town is looking at whether more can be done to alert visitors to the dangers, possibly including new signs.
MacNamara and Deputy Chief Chris Lyddy said outside of the designated swimming area there are sudden, sheer drops in the depth of lake.
"It's a very quick drop of about 15 to 20 feet," Lyddy said. "It's a sheer drop, which is one of the reasons it's not designated to be safe."
And a quick drop like that, MacNamara said, is what can quickly lead to panic, even for an experienced swimmer.
MacNamara said Perez Trujillo and her family waded across two small streams to get to the sandy peninsula on the opposite end of the lake from the public beach.
Perez Trujillo was swimming with young relatives and began to struggle just before 7 p.m. Lifeguards go off duty at 6 p.m.
Camelia Trujillo, along with other family members and bystanders, went into the water to try to rescue them. But Perez Trujillo slipped out of her mother's grasp and slipped below the water's surface. She was found by a Fairfield police diver more than 45 minutes later and taken by ambulance to Bridgeport Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
`Unable to sleep'
Tessa Duncan and her boyfriend, Mike Jeness, arrived at the northern shore of Lake Mohegan Tuesday just before 7 p.m. to fish. Just a half an hour later, their outing was cut short when they heard the frantic calls from Trujillo's family.
Looking over, they saw a woman yelling and pointing to the water.
"They were talking Spanish," said Duncan, 28, of Fairfield. "I didn't understand what they were saying but I heard `baby' and `water.' "
It took Duncan a few seconds to realize one of the children, 10-year-old Catherine, had sunk underwater and was no longer visible to the family. Jeness immediately took off his navy T-shirt and baseball cap and jumped into the water while Duncan called 911.
But the water was too dark and deep where the bottom drops off several feet from the shoreline. And Jeness' feet kept getting tangled on underwater plants, said Duncan, who was at the lake Wednesday to pick up the T-shirt and cap Jeness had left behind.
"It was horrible," Duncan said. "He (Jeness) was so upset that he couldn't find her."
The family appeared to be shocked. One of the younger children, who spoke English, tried his best Tuesday to explain where he had last seen the girl, who was lanky and wearing a blue swimsuit.
Just then Fairfield police arrived. "The cops came so fast," Duncan said. "I've never seen them come so fast."
The responding officers, along with firefighters, stripped off their uniforms and went into the water to try to locate the girl while dive teams raced to the lake. A police diver, Bill Demotses, who was one of the first on the scene and quickly geared up, found Catherine's body about an hour later, in nearly 30 feet of water.
Duncan said her boyfriend has had a hard time dealing with the tragedy.
"My boyfriend hasn't been able to sleep," Duncan said. "He's like, `I couldn't save her. But I couldn't see.' He keeps saying `I can't believe I was searching for a dead body.' Because after 10 minutes, you just know."
NOT THE FIRST DROWNING
Last year, a 39-year-old Shelton man drowned after running into the lake, again outside of the designated swimming area. Lifeguards on duty attempted to paddle out on boards to save him but could not get there in time.
Earlier this spring, there was a near drowning at the Cascades, a section of the lake area.
One of the difficulties with enforcement of the swimming regulations, particularly when lifeguards at the public beach go off-duty, is that the area cannot be seen from the road, police said.
Officers drive down the long roadway into the parking lot to patrol the area, Lyddy said, but even then you can't see the Cascades or all parts of the lake.
He urged anyone who sees people swimming anywhere other than the designated beach to alert lifeguards, if on duty, or call the police. "We will always send an officer," Lyddy said, "and we always do because we understand the dangers."
FAMILY REACHES OUT FOR HELP
Born in Mexico, Perez Trujillo moved to Bridgeport with her family "some time ago," according to her obituary, published on the Luz de Paz Funeral Home website.
"They're OK," Rodriguez said. "They have their moments of difficulty. I think that knowing that people are trying to make the process as least stressful as possible helps a little bit."
The girl's father, Valentin Perez, who rushed to the lake from work Tuesday, also lost his mother in February and father in March, Rodriguez said.
"This poor man has been through the mill, so I think he's somewhat numb," Rodriguez said. "He has so much going on in his life."
Bridgeport school officials say Perez Trujillo would have been a fifth-grader this fall at Multicultural Magnet School. She is survived by two sisters and several cousins. Although school is not in session, officials are reaching out to any summer school students who may have known her or her family.
Calling hours are Sunday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the 426 East Washington Ave. funeral home. A Mass will be held Monday at 11 a.m. at St. Peter's Church, 695 Colorado Ave., Bridgeport.
A fund to help the family pay for funeral and burial expenses has been established at the funeral home. Anyone wishing to make a donation can go there or call 203-330-8081. Rodriguez said they hope to raise enough money so the family can have a cost-free funeral and burial, but will not collect any donations once that amount is reached.
Keila Torres Ocasio contributed to this story