Remembering Tess

There is a lot of laughter shared between Tess Sollitto's closest friends as they remember her. But it's the bittersweet laughter of love and loss, as her friends recall the many good things about her in the weeks after she drowned in the Snoqualmie River June 28.

Fifteen-year-old Tess was energetic, outspoken and brutally honest. She gave great hugs but didn't like to share her Cheez-Its or Fruit Roll-Ups. Funny and fun to be around, her friends agreed that she was a girl that everybody loved.

She was part of a tight-knit group of friends; some of whom have known each other since early elementary school. The group really came together in their freshman year at Mount Si High School.

During the school year Tess matured into a self-confident young woman, sure of herself and possessing a positive outlook and relationship with God.

It was a change her friends were proud of and found inspiring.

The days after school let out this year were spent together enjoying the summer: sleepovers at friend's homes, hanging out, boating, tubing and swimming.

The friends went boating June 27 before spending the night near the river at next-door houses; sleeping on a trampoline in the yard with the sound of the water rushing by.

That night, Tess and Brandon Smith - who'd been something of an item for several months - gazed at the stars from a blanket in the yard and decided to officially become boyfriend and girlfriend.

"The time we all had before she died was so good," Brandon said. "Everything ended on a good note."

The Blue Hole

The decision the next day to go to the popular swimming spot known as Blue Hole on the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River was spontaneous.

The girls - Brittany Kragin, Kelsey Walker, Danielle Fulfs and Tess - considered boating, but wanted to do something more relaxing. Erika Murdoch couldn't go; she'd been grounded.

They called the guys - Brandon, Dominic Catanzaro and Steve Snead - deciding they might meet up later.

The girls got in the water near the two homes along the river where they'd spent the night.

"It was so cold that we almost got out," Brittany said.

But the unusually hot weather, along with a desire to do something, overcame the cold and they kept going. They floated downstream to Blue Hole in inner tubes and stopped for a lunch of oranges, stale crackers and chocolate chips on an island located in the river.

Then the girls took the tubes to the city side of the river briefly but they decided to sunbathe on a rock on the far side that beckoned in the hot afternoon sun.

Meanwhile, the boys had arrived and were fishing from the island while the girls attempted to cross the river.

Brittany and Danielle went first. Kelsey and Tess followed. Tess wasn't a strong swimmer and feared river swimming, but she went ahead anyway.

She and Kelsey both hit a current near the rock that brought them back into the rapids in an eddy near the island.

Both girls struggled in the cold water's tight grip. Kelsey was just 3 feet from Tess when she heard her say, "Kelsey, I can't do this anymore."

Kelsey saw Tess go underwater - straight down - and disappear. Kelsey called for help. Brandon had already dived in and was swimming the 20 or so feet to the girls.

He grabbed Kelsey and helped her to the large rock nearby, then turned to see if he could find Tess, but she was nowhere to be seen. Dominic considered following Brandon into the water, but thought it would be better to call 911 on his cell phone.

He had to run a short distance to fetch his phone. The six-minute call to 911 seemed like it took a lot longer, Dominic said.

Other witnesses on the town side also placed 911 calls.

Dominic called back minutes later when no help had arrived. It was then that the first responders from Eastside Fire and Rescue (EFR) arrived on the scene.

Rescue efforts

EFR received the call from dispatch of a possible drowning at 2:27 p.m., said Greg Tryon, battalion chief.

The first rescuers to arrive - getting there at 2:36 p.m. - were with an engine unit that coincidentally had a swift water rescue specialist on board, Tryon said.

Snoqualmie firefighters responded soon after with an engine that also contained swift water rescue specialists. More personnel than usual were available due to a nearby fire that still had firefighters working from the prior shift, Tryon said.

A news helicopter in the area also aided in the search, visually scanning downstream for signs of Tess and two others rumored to have gone downstream in search of her.

Snoqualmie firefighters set up downstream to catch Tess if she drifted by, while other banks in case she'd come ashore, Tryon said.

One of the first things the first responders on the scene did was to call for rescue divers - who already had been dispatched, Tryon said.

The divers were on Mercer Island, closer to North Bend than their normal Seattle headquarters, because they'd just wrapped up another rescue effort.

Even so, it took about 20 minutes for them to arrive.

Although everything was in place for a successful rescue, it wasn't enough to save Tess.

"Even if everything goes well, there's still no guarantee," Tryon said. "That's the shame and the hard part of it."

The rescue diver found Tess floating underwater, swirling in a circular current in Blue Hole on his second pass. She was quickly brought ashore where resuscitation efforts began at about 3:10 p.m., nearly 40 minutes after the first 911 call was made, Tryon said.

There was a brief moment of euphoria and hope among the rescuers as the first reports came in that she was breathing and had a heartbeat. She died several hours later at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Typically, brain death sets in after 6-8 minutes of oxygen deprivation. Though cold water can extend the time a person can survive underwater, the latest science indicates area waters aren't cold enough to have the prolonging effect, despite being cold enough to rapidly induce hypothermia.

"It's the worst of both worlds," Tryon said.

At the time the river, swollen with snow melt, was racing 3-feet higher than at the same time last year. For youths who grew up swimming in the river, the river's new face was treacherously unfamiliar, Tryon said.

The danger led officials to temporarily close the popular swimming hole. It has since quietly reopened after water levels dropped, but officials warn people to use caution and personal floatation devices - life jackets - to reduce the risks of drowning.

Something good from

something bad

The night after Tess' death, more than 500 people attended a candlelight vigil at Snoqualmie United Methodist Church. Tess' father Mark - a former North Bend City Council member who has worked for years with King County to improve river habitat - saw "an ocean of fresh, young faces," most of whom he didn't know.

Anticipating an even larger crowd for the official memorial on July 1, the service was held at Mount Si High School. More than 1,500 showed up, including family, friends, pastors and representative of the Snoqualmie Tribe.

The Rev. Dr. Beryl Ingram was one of three pastors who spoke. Her words strongly affected many of those in attendance.

"God did not take Tess from us," Ingram said. Instead, he set up the rules of the world, including those governing rivers and free will. She went on to say that God is working to bring good out of the tragedy of Tess' death.

Mark is already working to make sure some good will come of her passing. He is attempting to organize a benefit golf tournament to raise scholarship money for Mount Si students who achieve in sports and academics, like his daughter, who participated in volleyball and earned a 3.5 grade point average. Tess would have been starting her sophomore year at Mount Si this fall.

He now wears a braceletmade by Tess' friend Traci Hall bearing his daughter's name.

Her friends keep her memory alive by sharing stories and memories. But it's been hard.


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