Firwood camper who drowned was at bottom of steep dropoff

An aerial view of Camp Firwood on Wednesday during a Whatcom County Sheriff's search for a missing 18-year-old from China. The teen’s body was found in 30 feet of water later that day.
An aerial view of Camp Firwood on Wednesday during a Whatcom County Sheriff's search for a missing 18-year-old from China. The teen’s body was found in 30 feet of water later that day. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Little more is known about the apparent accidental drowning Tuesday of Bin Wang, a Chinese tourist who was visiting Camp Firwood on the south end of Lake Whatcom.

Divers using underwater cameras found Wang’s body Wednesday afternoon in about 30 feet of water at a cove near the waterfront at the Christian youth camp south of Sudden Valley, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement issued late Wednesday. He had been missing for about 24 hours.

Officials said no one saw Wang get in the water or knows why he went swimming with no experience.

Wang, 18, was last seen near the waterfront after 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, where he watched other campers participate in a waterfront activity that involved tipping a sailboat and righting it, Undersheriff Jeff Parks said in the statement.

“No one observed Bin, who reportedly does not know how to swim, enter the water,” Parks said in the statement. “A lifeguard was also on duty at the time and no unusual activity was noted.”

A camper found Wang’s shirt, shoes and socks, which had been left near a shed, Parks said. Bin had asked another camper to hold his glasses. Friends realized he was missing about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and camp staff was alerted to conduct an extensive search, said Tom Beaumont, executive director at The Firs conference center in Geneva, which operates Camp Firwood.

“I’m deeply saddened to report that the search ended this afternoon and our high school camper was found to be the victim of an accidental drowning,” Beaumont said via text message Wednesday night. “Our focus now is on caring for our campers, staff and parents.”

Wang was among a tour group from Seattle that was visiting Firwood as part of a longer U.S. visit, Beaumont said. He didn’t know the name of the tour operator or Wang’s hometown in China.

He said Wang’s parents had been notified.

Beaumont said Wang spoke little or no English and Firwood staff was hampered initially by the language barrier and conflicting accounts of when Wang was last seen.

Wang is the first apparent drowning death in Lake Whatcom since July 8, 2012, when David Arthur Johnston, 40,vanished in the south end of the lake while swimming near a small pleasure boat, according to The Bellingham Herald archives.

Sheriff Bill Elfo said deputies were called about 7:20 p.m. Tuesday. South Whatcom Fire Authority was asked to assist with its rescue boat shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday. A ground search Tuesday night included police dogs and a diver who searched the shallows.

A Whatcom County Sheriff's team searches for a missing 18-year-old from China at Camp Firwood on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. The teen’s body was found in 30 feet of water later that day. KOMO Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Some 20 searchers were at the camp Wednesday, including firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Summit to Sound Search and Rescue. Wang’s body was found at the site of a steep underwater dropoff not far from shore.

“Dogs ... were used on the water in boats and indicated consistently on an area in the cove,” Parks said.

Aerial photos showed the searchers in boats.

Meanwhile, regular camp activities were continuing with as much normalcy as possible, Beaumont said. Support officers were available to counsel campers and staff, Parks said.

Camp Firwood’s current session is for high school-age campers who stay in cabins at the 120-acre wooded site, which has a summer staff of 90.

Some 260 campers are enrolled this week, Beaumont said. The camp has indoor dining and activity facilities, as well as recreation programs that include basketball, a ropes course, a climbing wall, studio arts and crafts, fishing, paintball, swimming, sailing, skateboard ramps, and theater.

The Bellingham Herald reporter Robert Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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