'Hero' mom from Bethel Park drowns in Lake Erie trying to save son
Kristen Stefan's Facebook page is peppered with photos of her smiling son, a digital album of her devotion to him.
Friends and neighbors bore witness to that devotion on Thursday and said it came as no surprise that she died trying to save Tyler, 9, from the choppy waters of Lake Erie.
Stefan, 37, of Bethel Park was vacationing with her family and another family in Westfield, N.Y., 25 miles northeast of Erie, when tragedy unfolded on Wednesday afternoon, police and fire officials said.
Family members, including her husband, Todd Stefan, a music teacher at North Allegheny High School, could not be reached.
“Tyler was her life. She would do anything for him,” said Kimberly Tornabene, 31, of Scott, who met Kristen in a moms' group when her oldest daughter and Tyler were 2. “I keep checking the news. I want it to change, but it just won't.”
“She's a hero. The way she's going out, she's a hero,” said Tracy Klink, whose son attended Washington Elementary with Tyler and was a playmate since preschool.
Bill Narr, a neighbor on the Stefan family's cul-de-sac, said Kristen Stefan was an attentive and involved parent to their only child.
“You're not one bit surprised she put herself in harm's way to protect him,” said Narr, 45.
The Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office said Tyler Stefan and an 8-year-old friend were on an inflated inner tube on the lake when high wind and strong waves drew them away from shore.
Kristen Stefan swam out to help, but the current carried them into a cove surrounded by cliffs near Shore Drive in the neighborhood of Shore Haven.
“Lake Erie is a very difficult body of water, especially when the winds and waves are strong like they were yesterday,” said Sheriff Joseph Gerace. “In the area they were pushed into, even rescuers were thwarted by the height of the cliffs and their inability to get into the water.”
Gerace said cliffs can rise up to 30 feet above water that's too deep to stand in but too shallow to dive into.
The three left the tube to try to climb to safety; the younger child made it out and was waiting with an adult when rescuers arrived, said Westfield Volunteer Fire Department Second Assistant Chief Brad Szymczak.
Tyler Stefan fell back into the water as they climbed and the current started to carry him out into the lake — this time without the tube — so his mother went back for him.
Gerace said it was unclear when she drowned, but it was too late by the time Matt Ward, a Shore Haven resident who is a lifeguard, swam 200 yards to rescue the boy. Doctors at a local hospital pronounced her dead. They treated Tyler for hypothermia.
The Stefans are parishioners at St. Louise de Marillac Catholic Church in Upper St. Clair, where staff said the family had not made funeral arrangements.
Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or firstname.lastname@example.org.