Friends gather to honor teen who drowned in Gaston County river

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — A large crowd gathered Wednesday outside the high school of a 16-year-old girl to honor and remember her after she drowned in the South Fork River in Gaston County.

Emergency responders recovered the body of Makenna Warlick the day after she drowned in the South Fork River on Monday.

A vigil was held at West Lincoln High School in Lincolnton.

Mourners embraced each other, prayed and cried.

Friends who organized the vigil said they wanted Warlick’s family to know they were there for them.

"I wanted everybody to be able to come to show love and support for Makenna and her family," friend and vigil organizer Montana Thompson said.

"She cared,” friend Addie Bumgarner said. “She knew she was beautiful and gorgeous. Her personality was the best thing about her -- her laugh"

Rescue efforts slowed down Monday due to high water levels and a broken generator.

Officials resumed efforts early Tuesday morning, but a lightning strike from an overnight storm shut down the generator being used to pump water from the river. This caused the water level to rise and crews were forced to wait until the generator was fixed.

Investigators said three teenage girls had been swimming in the river near the dam and exploring the rocky area downstream.

Misty Dial said her daughter was with Warlick, who drowned.

Dial said the girls went to a pool earlier in the day, and she didn't know they were going to the river.

“I'm devastated,” Dial said. “That was just like one of my children.”

Authorities said that, after 4 p.m., a 911 caller reported seeing a teenage girl jump off the South Fork River Bridge in the town of High Shoals.  But the teen did not jump off the bridge, officials later said.

"Stopped to fix her shoe. She slipped. She hit her head on a rock,” Dial said. “The girls began to laugh."

That laughter quickly turned into cries for help.

"One of the girls had some kind of issue and got in distress, and we are in the process of recovering her now," said Bill Melton, with Gaston County EMS.

Warlick had slipped and fell into the water.

"She fell into the water and got stuck in between two rocks, and she screamed, ‘Haley, help me. Haven, help me,’ and they couldn't help her,” Dial said.

Dial said she loved Warlick and said she was everything you would want in a daughter.

"She has that spirit,” Dial said. “She has that vibe that just brightens up the whole room."

“My little girl is angry with God, right now,” Dial said. “I'm trying to explain to her it's not God's fault. He doesn’t do terrible things. Accidents happen. It was just her time.”

[ALSO READ: Body of missing 14-year-old found in South Fork River]

The teens called for help and got the attention of a man.

"When that happened, he was nearby and one of the other teenagers waved him down, asking him to try and help them," said Sgt. Matt Hensley, with Gaston County police.

George Schmidt said he saw the girls pass him and minutes later heard their calls for help.

"They were just walking across the rocks. They had just got there. I mean they hadn't been there 10 minutes, maybe 15,” he said.

Schmidt said he could barely hear two girls calling for help after their 16-year-old friend slipped between two rocks and went underwater.

He ran across the river, ignoring the danger to himself.

"I just did what anybody would have done. They were hollering for help,” Schmidt said.

He said the 16-year-old accidentally stepped into the worst possible spot, a quick drop between two rocks.

"It wasn't but 2 foot of water that was over top of her, but it was where the strongest part of the rapids was,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said he searched for a half-hour in an effort to find Warlick. He knew she was down for too long, but he wouldn't stop.

"’Cause I still hoped there was a chance that she might be there,” Schmidt said.

He said he found her under a spot where the water was rushing around her. It was so strong that getting into the gap was impossible. He felt helpless.

"I could see her, but I couldn't get to her,” Schmidt said.

He said he helped one of the other girls get across the river. Rescuers arrived, and Schmidt’s efforts had to come to an end.

"I feel sorry for that girl and her parents,” he said.

The section of the South Fork River is a traditional swimming spot, but is off-limits to the public.

"The South Fork River is a treacherous river,” Melton said. “I talked about that the last few weeks. Some other tragedy we recently had, the currents in some places can create riptides."

In the last two weeks, two teenagers have drowned in the South Fork River. The first was 14-year-old Ethan Britt, who officials said went swimming in the flooded river with a friend earlier in June then  got swept away.

"There aren't any lifeguards or safety features down there at all," City of High Shoals Mayor Dan Weekly said. "It is dangerous. I suggest they go to a different swimming place."

Authorities said the two other girls were uninjured.