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Impromptu rescue attempt leaves RHS grads asking 'What if?'

Both Jon and Emily Gabriel were captains for the Irish swim team.

Emily Gabriel never really met Ethan Mroz, but she thinks about him every day. She thinks about the things she'll get to do that he never will. She thinks about his family and what this Holiday season will be like for them. And she thinks about the day last August she pulled the 16-year-old's lifeless body from the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Jon Gabriel doesn't think about Mroz quite so often -- maybe once a week, he said -- but he still wonders what might have happened if his family had gotten in their car a little bit earlier that day, or if they had sped through just one yellow light instead of stopping.

He wonders what would have happened if they had gotten there just a little bit sooner.

Jon, a 2006 graduate of Rosemount High School, and Emily, a 2008 RHS graduate, were with their parents and a family friend on their way home from a vacation in Michigan early Aug. 14 when they pulled off to the side of the highway to take a picture. As they stood by the scenic dunes that separate Lake Michigan from the highway in Mackinack County a woman walking her dog told them someone had drowned. She said it calmly, as if she were commenting on the weather.

Jon and Emily both swam for the Irish and both worked as lifeguards. Emily, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, still swims competitively. So when they heard about the drowning both took off running down the beach. They found people giving CPR to 66-year-old Patrick Dipzincki. He died, but someone said the man's grandson was still in the water.

Jon and Emily took off running again, this time into the lake. Neither gave much thought to the fact they were about to dive into rough waves and rip currents that had already killed at least one man. They just went.

"The thought occurred afterward (that it was a bad idea), but my sister and I just ran out there not even thinking," Jon said. "We just thought we had to go out there. In hindsight, maybe we should have thought about it, but with adrenaline going the thought never crossed my mind."

Jon and Emily split up once they hit the water, and after about five minutes Emily found something on the bottom. The water was clear, she said, and not too deep. She called out to her brother and dove down again. She came up with Mroz.

Jon and Emily were able to get the boy to the shore and start CPR. They worked for several minutes giving mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions before paramedics were able to take over but Mroz never revived.

That fact is difficult for both Jon and Emily to deal with. Jon had a nightmare the next night, and Emily said she thinks about Mroz "all the time."

"I kind of replay it in my head," Emily said. "I think about everything that happened, and then I think about the family. His girlfriend was there. I wonder how she's doing. I wonder if she's still thinking about him."

Emergency personnel who responded to the beach said the RHS graduates likely did Mroz's family a big favor. Had they not found the body, rescue efforts probably wouldn't have started for several hours. There's no telling where the body would have been by then, or if it ever would have been found.

Mroz's family sent both Jon and Emily letters thanking them for what they did. They thanked them for allowing the family to have closure.

The Gabriels also received a commendation earlier this month from Michigan State Police. But Jon said it's the family's letter that means the most to him.

"Getting recognition for it is always nice, but I wish I could be recognized for saving his life," Jon said. "In the end, the recognition I got from the family is more important to me."

The letter from the state police was mailed to the family's Rosemount home. Neither Jon, who is a senior at Iowa State University, nor Emily has seen it yet.

Both Jon and Emily say the incident has affected them. It makes them appreciate the things they have and the opportunities that are available to them. Emily has found little things that used to bother her don't seem to matter so much any more. At least she's around to be bothered, she said.

"I just think that I am so much more thankful for every day I have, because he was 16 years old," Emily said. "I'm only 19 and I feel like the three years I have had since 16, so much has happened to me. So much more will hopefully happen to me."