On Friday, Caitlin Kupec was to travel to Africa on a four-month long humanitarian mission. The recently pinned registered nurse was looking forward to the worldly experience.
However, tragedy struck her family Sunday, and instead of packing, Caitlin is preparing for her father’s funeral.
“I’m still in shock,” said Caitlin, 22, her sad and tired eyes concealed behind black-rimmed sunglasses.
“He said he would build me my dream house someday.”
Caitlin was with her dad Christiopher J. Kupec, and her 5-year-old nephew Ethan Tucker, on Spar Island Sunday afternoon, enjoying the weather and each other’s company. That morning, the Kubec family spent hours in Mount Hope Bay tubing, and sharing memories with family that was visiting from New Jersey.
“That afternoon, Ethan said, ‘Pa, I want to go swimming,'” said Judith Kupec, Chris’ wife.. “Caitlin said she hadn’t been out on the boat yet this summer, so she and Chris took Ethan out there to Spar Island.”
The three anchored at the island, a low flat-topped barren island in Mount Hope Bay that is visible except at high tide, and surrounded by sandbars. Ethan donned his little life jacket, buckled over the chest and under the legs. Caitlin stood on the shore, watching the boy splash in the water, while Chris took the family dog Marley, a small chihuahua, for a walk.
“There was a medium current, nothing too strong, and the waves weren’t bad at all,” Caitlin recalled.
Caitlin noticed that Ethan was a little farther from shore than earlier and called to her dad to bring him in.
“He was already wet from his bathing suit, so he came from the other side of the island and went it swimming after Ethan,” she said. “And I watched him. I saw my dad get close to Ethan, then just roll over on his back.
“I thought my dad was joking around, so I was getting angry. I yelled, ‘dad, c’mon what are you doing,'” she said. “But he didn’t answer me back. Then the dog started getting into the water and drifting out, so I went in after him and got Ethan, too.”
Caitlin brought Ethan and Marley to shore. She turned her eyes back to the bay, scanning the water for any sign of her dad. Panicked, she told Ethan to stay put while she jumped on the bough of their boat for a better look.
“I was crying at this point,” Caitlin said. “I couldn’t see him anywhere. I don’t know what I was thinking. I thought he might have gone to another boat, or practicing his backstroke, I don’t know.”
Caitlin’s first phone call was to her neighbor, who also had a boat in the water nearby. She got the answering machine.
“Then I called 911,” she said. “And I must have talked to like 10 different people.”
Alone with a 5-year-old and a dog, Caitlin began waving her arms frantically and screaming for help toward the nearby boats. No one could hear her.
Twenty minutes would go by before she was spotted by Tiverton Marine Rescue.
“It seemed like they were going so slow to get to us,” she sighed.
By then, the U.S. Coast Guard showed up and brought Ethan and Marley back to the Mount Hope Bay boat ramp. Caitlin soon followed in another boat.
“When I got to the ramp, I could see Ethan sitting in the back of a police car talking to someone,” she said. “I gave him my phone so that he could play games. I had asked him, what happened to pa when he swam out to you, and Ethan said that (Chris) had him, then let him go and rolled onto his back.”
Ethan was holding together well given the hype of activity, Caitlin recalled. She, however, had a gut feeling that her father had died out there in the bay. She was too numb to react in that moment.
“I broke down at the hospital, because I had done clinicals there, and I knew that the room they wheeled him into wasn’t a cardiac room,” Caitlin said.
A doctor greeted the family gathered in the waiting room and delivered the bad news: Chris was dead.
“They still don’t know what happened,” Judith said. “I need to know, in order for me to move on, I need to know what happened to him.”
Chris was an all-around healthy person, Judith said. He wasn’t overweight and had no medical conditions that would precipitate a heart attack or stroke.
“He had a little bit of high blood pressure, but that was controlled,” she said.
He was also an excellent swimmer, Caitlin said.
“Better than me, and he knew the waters so well,” she said, adding that the idea of his drowning was nearly impossible.
Ethan was treated at the hospital Sunday, and again on Monday for chest pains, the result of stress. Judith said he fluctuates between being angry and sad, and will attend bereavement counseling later this week to help him deal with the tragedy of losing his grandfather.
Chris had been married to Judith for almost 25 years. The Kupecs bought a cottage on Everette Street where Chris took pride in renovating it into the two-story home that overlooks the water. He was a contractor by trade, but with a heart for commitment unlike any other, said his dad Jim Kupec.
Chris was described as a go-to person among his family and friends; always willing to help, go the extra mile and do it happily.
“He couldn’t tell people no,” Judith added. “He’d be working all the time, and when get got a call that someone needed help doing something, he’d be right there.”
The family will accept condolences during visiting hours from 4 – 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2 at Smith Funeral and Memorial Services in Warren. A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3, at the funeral home.