Two New Jersey communities are mourning the loss of teenage boys after both fell through the ice while walking over frozen ponds in their Middlesex County hometowns, officials announced.
David Tillberg, 15, and Yousef Khela, 13, were the two victims who tragically lost their lives in Wednesday’s separate — but eerily similar — pond incidents, the East Brunswick Police Department and the Carteret Fire Department & EMS Division confirm in respective press releases.
Lieutenant Frank Sutter of East Brunswick said in a statement that officers arrived at the frozen pond on Civic Center Drive just before 5 p.m. after receiving reports of “juveniles that fell through the ice.”
First responders were able to determine that three male teens had been walking on the pond when they accidentally fell into the icy waters. Two of the teens were able to escape, but the other remained stuck in the freezing pond, Sutter said.
In an effort to save Yousef, officers “formed a chain and entered the pond,” but the lieutenant explained that they were unsuccessful and the teen “slipped under the ice before they could reach him.”
East Brunswick Fire Districts were then called to the scene to assist with the rescue efforts. Their teams were able to recover the 13 year old from the icy water and immediately transported him to the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in critical condition.
However, less than three hours later, Sutter confirmed that the boy was pronounced dead at the hospital. He also noted that six officers and two firefighters were treated for hypothermia — three of whom were transported to the hospital.
Another officer who was responding to the scene was also transported to the hospital after he was involved in a motor vehicle accident, the lieutenant said.
Victor Valeski, the superintendent of East Brunswick School District, addressed Khela’s death in a statement on their website, though he did not directly name the teen.
“Last evening our East Brunswick School Community suffered the tragic loss of one of our male, 8th grade Churchill Junior High School students in an accident on the frozen pond located at Civic Center Drive. Two other male Churchill students also fell through the ice but were able to self-rescue themselves,” Valeski wrote.
The superintendent added that counseling services and areas of support would be available at all three middle schools throughout the day for students and staff.
“Please keep these students, their families, our first responders and the East Brunswick community in your thoughts tonight,” Valeski said.
Another tragedy unfolded across the county in Carteret. The Carteret Fire Department & EMS Division, along with the Carteret Police Department, confirmed in a statement that they responded to a report for two teenage males who had fallen into the ice at Carteret Pond.
The rescue operation happened around 7:45 p.m., according to Carteret Mayor Dan Reiman, who tweeted as first responders were working to save the boys.
Carteret authorities explained that one of the boys was able to escape the waters, but the other found himself trapped in the ice. Despite making several attempts, they were unsuccessful in their rescue efforts and required the assistantance of water rescue crews.
Within an hour, the teen’s body had been recovered and transported to University Hospital in Newark, officials explained. Unfortunately, the teen died in the early morning hours on Thursday, Reiman confirmed in a statement.
“Our small community is saddened and shocked over this tragedy; we take solace in knowing that our emergency services responded and did all they could in an attempt to rescue him,” Reiman said.
The mayor attached a GoFundMe below his statement, which was created by the boy’s aunt, who identified him as 15-year-old Tillberg. Superintendent Rosa L. Diaz of Carteret Public Schools also confirmed the teen’s identity in a letter to the community.
“There are no words to describe the great sadness our students and staff are feeling right now,” Diaz wrote, noting that grief counselors would be available at their schools. “As Ramblers, we will rely on our resilience as we work together to cope with this terrible tragedy.”
Tillberg documented his final moments in a photo on his Snapchat, according to WNBC in New York.
The teen captured a photo of himself, which was obtained by KABC-TV reporter Derick Waller, standing on the pond in the dark and captioned it, “On the ice baby.”
Following the deaths, the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association expressed their condolences in a tweet.
“It has been a tragic night around the State with young people falling through ice. Some officers have been injured and hospitalized in heroic attempts to save lives,” the New Jersey State PBA wrote. “Pray for all families and communities tonight. #prayers.”
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On the GoFundMe, Tillberg’s aunt said the family was “distraught” and called the teen “the nicest and funniest person I’ve ever known with a smile that was everything.”
“He loved to sing and he was kind of shy about it. I always said he could be the next Justin Bieber,” she said. “I always thought he would grow up to be an engineer, he loved building and designing things. He had his whole life ahead of him and I am beside myself as I type this message.”
“He just went out to play with his friend and tragedy struck. We will never get to hear his voice or see his smiling face again. All we have now are memories,” she added, encouraging parents to speak to warn their children about ice to prevent additional deaths.