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Originally published Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 7:56 PM

Federal Way teenager drowns in Lake Tapps

Robert Harris, 17, of Federal Way, died Saturday after swimming in Lake Tapps, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office. A sheriff's spokesman said the water just below the surface at the glacier-fed lake can be very cold, which can cause difficulty for swimmers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A 17-year-old Federal Way boy died Saturday evening after swimming in Lake Tapps, a reservoir that's a popular recreational destination, said the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office.

He was identified by that office as Robert Harris.

Ryann Hill, an investigator with the medical examiner, said an autopsy would be done on Monday. She said efforts to resuscitate the youth were not successful. The call came in shortly before 6 p.m., she said.

Television news reports said that Harris had been at a family barbecue when he went into the lake to retrieve a football. He then began to struggle and disappeared into the water, according to the reports. Family members swam out to where he had last been seen but couldn't find him.

Dive units from the Pierce County Sheriff's Office began a grid search for Harris and located his body 54 minutes after he had been underwater, the reports said. CPR efforts were unsuccessful.

A sheriff's spokesman said the water just below the surface at the lake can be very cold and that if Harris cramped up, that could have been a factor.

On Sunday, Lt. Matthew Jewitt, paramedic with East Pierce Fire and Rescue, said that at Lake Tapps, someone can be swimming in 65-degree water and suddenly "hit a patch just beneath the surface that's in the mid-50s."

He talked about the "50/50/50 rule," in which an average adult swimmer has 50 percent chance of surviving a 50-yard swim in 50-degree water.

On the Lake Tapps North Park website, a warning states that the lake is fed by water from a glacier: "Lake Tapps water averages 50 degree in the summers — this is not the same as air temperature."

Jewitt said that the cold water "is very debilitating ... even for a strong swimmer."

He said it seemed to him that his unit was answering an average of two calls a year reporting drowning at Lake Tapps.

"They're horrible calls to run, just horrible," he said.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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