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Co-Workers: Woman Who Drowned Rescuing Boy ‘Saved Us Every Day’

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CHICAGO (CBS) – A woman from Arlington Heights was being remembered as a hero Friday, after drowning while saving the life of a 9-year-old boy in northern Wisconsin.

CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole reports, as her friends tell it Karen Wessel was an exceptional woman in many ways. She was such an excellent legal secretary, her boss in downtown Chicago found a way for her to work out of an office at his nursery and cafe in River Forest so she could have an easier commute to her children in Arlington Heights.

“She saved us every day she came into work, in one fashion or another, in a business setting. So the fact that she gave her life up to save children doesn’t surprise us at all,” friend and co-worker Tom Cronin said.

Wessel, 47, was raising two children as a single mom. She was very tight with her family, especially her sister, Janice Potocki.

Wessel, her son, her sister, a friend, and two other children had traveled to a family vacation spot in Star Lake, Wisconsin, on Tuesday.

Potocki said, on Thursday, the three kids were playing on a sandbar in the lake, but got too far out in the water, so she and Wessel went into the water to rescue them.

Wessel and Potocki managed to get two of the kids to safety, but the third – a 9-year-old boy – did not know how to swim, and was panicking as Potocki tried to get him out of the water. He struggled with her, and she became disoriented and nearly drowned herself before Wessel came to help her.

As he struggled to use her own weight to hold him above the water, he continued to struggle. Although nearby boaters showed up to pull the boy out, Wessel went under.

“He was trying to crawl up her to get air, and he pushed her under too many times,” Potocki told CBS 2’s Brad Edwards Thursday. “By the time they her out of the water, her heart had already stopped once.”

Efforts to revive Wessel did not succeed, she said, and she was pronounced dead an hour later after her organs failed.

The boy who nearly drowned was doing well on Friday.

At Wessel’s office in River Forest on Friday, her desk was still dotted with Post-It notes, and to do lists. Co-workers said Wessel was the type who gave of herself always.

Potocki said anyone who didn’t meet her sister “missed out on one of the kindest and most thoughtful people they will ever have the chance to know.”

A scholarship fund has been set up for Wessel’s two children – her 9-year-old son Michael, and her 17-year-old daughter Elizabeth.

It’s called the Elizabeth Wessel and Michael Barr Support Trust, and contributions can be made in person at any branch of the Village Bank of Arlington Heights; by mail to Village Bank of Arlington Heights, 234 W. Northwest Highway, Arlington Heights, IL 60004; or at any Wintrust Bank in greater Chicagoland.

For more information, call 847-870-5000.

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