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WAKE FOREST — “I didn’t really prepare for this,” Erik Lewis said to the crowd.
He was talking about the speech he was about to give, but he could have just as easily been referring to the sudden death of his younger brother, Ian Lewis, who police say drowned April 19 when he was caught in a rip current at a beach on Emerald Isle.
Erik Lewis spoke slowly into the microphone. He faced a gathered crowd of hundreds of Wake Forest High School students, family, community members and TV cameras.
“Ian would probably be texting me right now if he was here,” Erik said. “He’d say, ‘Dude, look how popular I am.’”
It was a rare lighthearted moment in the otherwise somber vigil Tuesday at E. Carroll Joyner Park. The event was organized to pray for Ian Lewis and Mary Paige Merical, a second teen who was caught in the rip current, whose family said is brain dead. Both were seniors at Wake Forest High School months from graduating.
Lewis, 18, and Merical, 17, were with friends visiting Emerald Isle, a Carteret County beach on the southern end of the Outer Banks, for spring break.
According to Emerald Isle Police, Lewis and Merical were swimming in the ocean around 3:50 p.m. April 19, when surf conditions were rough and waves were up to nine feet high.
Beachgoers called 911 when they lost sight of the two from the shore. Emergency responders were able to pull Merical from the ocean after she was under water for 14 minutes, but Lewis’ body was not found until Monday morning.
Merical was transported to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville where she was unconscious and in critical condition at the ICU.
On Wednesday, the family announced Paige was brain dead and would die by the end of the week.
Gone too soon
A crowd of hundreds attended Tuesday’s vigil, most clad in green — Lewis’ favorite color. They signed notes to Lewis’ and Merical’s families and joined together in prayer and song.
Friends remembered Lewis as a passionate, happy and athletic person known for his camaraderie and reliability. He played soccer for more than a decade, was involved in Boy Scouts for much of his life, and enjoyed music, movies and sports.
Erik Lewis said his brother was stubborn because once he set his mind to something, there was no changing it.
“If you ever told him that he couldn’t do it, he would double down and he would get it done,” Erik Lewis said. “It was honestly something that inspired me as an older brother.”
One of Lewis’ soccer coaches at Wake Forest High School, Rick Pittarelli, said Lewis was always respectful and had a great work ethic.
“If people were able to judge a book by the cover without knowing it, they would have made a huge mistake with Ian,” Pittarelli said. “He was humble. ... He didn’t make anyone feel like he was better than them. He was very outgoing. It was almost like he never met a stranger.”
Lewis’ best friend, Darian Kiener, called Lewis “one heck of a friend” Tuesday. He said the two would often spend time in Kiener’s car, listening to music and talking about their dreams for the future.
Kiener said that now that Lewis is dead, it’s up to him to keep those dreams alive.
“I’m really thankful that he gave me so much time,” Kiener said. “He was always there and I have no idea what I’m going to do. I guess I’m just going to keep breathing. That’s what he would want. That’s what we all got to do.”
A GoFundMe set up by Lewis’ prom date and friend, Emilee Boyd, has raised more than $10,000 to help Lewis’s family with related expenses as of Thursday.
‘Called to heaven’
Friends described Merical as an athlete who loves to laugh and bring joy and who is known for her smile.
Among the notes written to Merical and her family during the vigil were common sentiments including “You are so strong,” “Keep fighting” and “We all believe in you.”
Despite the grim prognosis of someone who has been without oxygen for an extended time, those who know Merical rallied around her to pray for a miracle. At the vigil, the crowd joined in multiple prayers calling for healing and recovery.
All the people praying “represent a beacon of hope for our dear friend Paige in the hospital,” said classmate Noah Pittarelli.
But that hope was shattered the following day, when Merical’s father, John Merical, announced on Facebook that Paige was brain dead.
“Paige fought a tough fight, but her brain was too severely damaged,” he wrote. “We get to love on my baby for the next few days, with organ donation Saturday.”
He said that Paige was a supporter of organ donation.
Merical’s cousin, Meredith Jarrell, added in a post that Merical “has been called to heaven far sooner than we ever thought possible. This is a very trying time for her parents and our family as we will struggle to get through every second minute hour day week month and year without her here.”
The family said they appreciate all they prayers and support. A separate GoFundMe for Paige has also raised more than $10,000.