CHICAGO (STMW) — Michael Hilling and Jessica Woytonik were at the lakefront celebrating their first anniversary as fireworks went off at midnight at nearby Navy Pier on New Year’s Eve.
Hilling, 19, tried to retrieve a water bottle his girlfriend dropped into Lake Michigan — but ended up drowning.
“We were there to celebrate,’’ an emotional Jessica Woytonik said by phone Saturday morning from Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where Hilling was pronounced dead. “It was our anniversary at midnight.’’
Hilling, of Upper Peninsula, Michigan was visiting Woytonik, who is studying fine art at Columbia College.
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They met in third grade and grew up together in Michigan, but didn’t start dating until last Dec. 31.
They went to Buckingham Fountain. At some point, Woytonik told police, they were sitting on the edge of an embankment when her water bottle dropped in the water, a police report states. Hilling jumped into the water to try and retrieve the bottle but began struggling, the report states.
“I tried to make it to him but he was 20 feet away from shore and his head went under water,’’ Woytonik said.
Hilling’s body was recovered by a fire department scuba team after it was in the water for 30 minutes, police said. Hilling was taken to Northwestern in critical condition.
Hilling’s mother, Debra Jean Hilling, expressed disbelief Saturday that her son, who “could only dog-paddle,” jumped into the lake.
“It’s bizarre. I don’t even understand it,” she said. “The boy couldn’t swim, so I don’t understand why he’s going out into the open water in the middle of December to retrieve a water bottle.”
Hilling described her son as a “handy kid” who was good with computers, had a great sense of humor and worked as a cook at a tavern in Rock, Mich.
She said Michael had intended to move to Chicago to attend Columbia College, like Woytonik. Woytonik now plans to move back to Michigan.
On Monday, Woytonik’s mother, Cammie Burks, said previous reports that Hilling had jumped into the water to reach the bottle were false.
Burks said the two were watching fireworks near the seawall when the water bottle fell in the water. Hilling thought he could hang off the wall and pick it up to grab it. When he realized he couldn’t grab it, he tried to pull himself back up but fell in, she said.
“She [Woytonik] tried to pull him out. He started to scream but people were watching the fireworks and nobody could would help them,” Burks said. “She told him to swim to the ladder but he didn’t make it and she watched him drown.”
Burks said her daughter is being harassed on Facebook and by others in the small town she grew up with, who are chastising her for not going in after him and accusing her of wrongdoing in his death.
She said her daughter has no plans to return to Columbia College and will be staying with her in Michigan. “She is devastated,” Burks said.
(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2010. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)