By Crystal Faircloth and Jefferson Weaver
The body of a St. Paul’s man was recovered Sunday morning after personnel from three counties spent an arduous weekend of searching Lake Waccamaw.
Francisco Javier Vazquez Hernandez, known as Paco to friends and family, went missing Friday evening shortly after 6 p.m. , State Parks spokesperson Michelle Walker said. He was operating a jet ski, pulling two children on an inner tube, when the incident happened around 5:30 p.m.
The two boys, who were not wearing life jackets, jumped from the float, Walker said. A developing weather system Friday evening was causing the lake to develop rough water around the time the boys went into the water.
“When they appeared to be struggling, Hernandez jumped in to give his life jacket to the boys,” Walker said.
The two children managed to swim to a nearby pier and make it to shore, but Hernandez, 34, was unable to make it back to the jet ski due to wind and waves. The water in the area was about eight feet deep, with a strong flow toward the dam. The boys swam until they could walk, rescuers said, then climbed a pier and asked for help.
County, local, and neighboring first responders began the search Friday evening, then called the search for the night due to wind and high water.
On Saturday morning, the recovery efforts resumed at 6 a.m., with State Parks Personnel, Lake Waccamaw Police, Lake Fire and Lake Waccamaw Rescue assisted by Bladen County Water Rescue, Acme-Delco-Riegelwood, Tabor City Fire, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, and the sheriff’s office. Dozens of personnel were on the scene by noon, and both boating accesses at the lake were closed to non-emergency traffic. Volunteers in kayaks and on foot also searched along the lake’s edge from near the dam up Canal Cove and Waccamaw Shores.
Worsening weather delayed the arrival of a Highway Patrol helicopter until Saturday afternoon. Cadaver dogs from Brunswick County and dive teams from Columbus, Bladen and Brunswick were brought in to assist in the search. Several drones were also deployed in the search.
Columbus Emergency Management coordinated efforts from the Sigmon Wildlife Boating Access, a short distance from where Hernandez disappeared. The jet ski he was operating was pulled from the water and trailered nearby behind a Cadillac Escalade.
County Commissioners Ricky Bullard, Jerome McMillian and Brent Watts, along with County Manager Eddie Madden, provided meals for the search teams throughout much of Saturday.
Saturday’s efforts were called off around 7 p.m., as more rough weather moved in. Teams reassembled on Sunday morning.
Hernandez’s body was found under a pier in the Waccamaw Shores area around 9:20 a.m., a short distance from where he disappeared.
The drowning was the first in the lake since a Southport fisherman was lost off Lakeshore Drive in February 2018.