Federal Way teen Robert Harris drowns in Lake Tapps

This memorial was erected at Decatur High School for Robert Harris, a 17-year-old student who died Saturday night. - Andy Hobbs/The Mirror
This memorial was erected at Decatur High School for Robert Harris, a 17-year-old student who died Saturday night.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/The Mirror

A patch of grass in front of the Decatur High School sign on South 320th Street serves as a makeshift memorial to Robert Harris.

Dozens of family and friends of the popular Decatur junior gathered at the school Sunday night to pay homage to Harris, who drowned in Lake Tapps the evening before. Candles were lit, flowers were left and messages were written on a sign that reads “In Loving Memory of Robert ‘Hurricane’ Harris. Rest In Peace.”

“Never in my career has there been a finer young man,” said John Herberholz, a computer tech teacher and coach at Saghalie Middle School, where Harris attended before enrolling at Decatur. “He was destined to accomplish great things with his life. Our loss is heaven’s gain.”

Reports said that Harris had been at a family barbecue when he went into Lake Tapps to retrieve a football that was floating on the water. He then began to struggle and disappeared into the water, according to the reports. Family members swam out to where he was last seen, but couldn’t find him.

Dive units from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office began a grid search for Harris and located his body 54 minutes after he had been underwater, the reports said. Efforts to resuscitate Harris were unsuccessful.

Decatur High School had grief counselors at the school all day Monday for students or staff who were dealing with Harris’ unexpected death. Harris was a popular 17-year-old at Decatur. He was a standout on the Gators’ wrestling team and a standout in the classroom.

“The main thing is he was just a heck of a good kid,” said Decatur’s longtime head wrestling coach Mike Bressler. “A special kid you never forget. He would always come by my classroom to say hi and that’s rare for a kid to be mature enough to do that. He was always positive. He was one of those you hate to lose.”

Last year, Harris narrowly missed qualifying for the Mat Classic state wrestling tournament after finishing in fourth place at the South Puget Sound League 3A Sub-regional wrestling tournament at 130 pounds.

“We were really looking forward to this season,” Bressler said. “He had worked real hard in the offseason. He was incredibly athletically gifted and so darn coachable. He thrived to get better. He was just a great kid, so hardworking and dedicated. He was a leader and led by example.”

According to Bressler, the Gator wrestling team will honor Harris with some sort of patch during the season.

“We will do something,” he said. “His nickname was Hurricane because he came out for a match like a ball of fire. He was just a fantastic kid to watch. We will probably put Hurricane on our uniforms.”

“The one thing I really remember about Robert is he just had this presence when he walked into a room,” said Dallas Harwood, a social studies teacher at Decatur and wrestling coach at Lakota Middle School, who helped Harris during the summer. “He just had so much energy and was a very respected kid. He was just fun to be around. It’s really rare to find a young man with those characteristics. He just lights up a room.”

“My heart grieves for his family,” said Debbie Joaquin, a librarian at Saghalie. “What a loss. Robert was a wonderful kid who knew when to be serious, when to be funny, always respectful and an awesome athlete. A tragedy beyond words. A beautiful person inside and out to have known. He will be missed.”

“He had a million-dollar smile and used it all the time,” Bressler said. “He didn’t talk bad about anybody or tease anybody. He took those kind of kids under his wing. The kids loved him and they are all devastated.”

The drowning death of Harris continues a streak of tragedies at Decatur. It comes a little over a year after Gator seniors Derek King and Nicholas Hodgins were killed on June 9, 2010. The two 18-year-olds were struck by a drunken driver on Interstate 5 three days before their graduation.

Former Decatur grad Emmanuel Franco, 21, was killed Dec. 29 after a drunken driver crashed into him at the intersection of South 320th Street and Pacific Highway South.

A monument was dedicated in June to the three students near the makeshift memorial for Harris, on the school’s front lawn. A charcoal-black granite stone is engraved with their names, birth dates and death dates.


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