The Rev. Patrick Augustine remembers the wintry night 10 years ago when his brother’s family came to the United States.
He met them at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago -- his brother, Peter, and his sister-in-law, Lily, and their three children: Sarah, Zarah and Shalim.
They were exhausted after a 33-hour journey from Islamabad, Pakistan, but Patrick remembers how wide awake his relatives were, how amazed they were to see their first snowfall as they drove north to La Crosse, how they got out of the car to feel the unfamiliar cold.
“They were just so excited to be in a new country,” he said.
The same community that welcomed the immigrants 10 years ago came to their aid last week when their middle child, Shalim, disappeared after spending Tuesday boating with friends. After docking near Powerhouse Marine on La Crosse’s North Side late Tuesday night, he told his friends that he planned to walk to his house on the South Side, about five miles away.
He never made it.
Police and fire personnel, friends and strangers searched for the 23-year-old all week, holding onto hope that he would turn up safe. Those hopes were dashed Friday evening when police confirmed that a body recovered from the Black River at about 6:20 p.m. that evening was, indeed, Shalim’s.
“It’s still a shock to everyone,” said Shalim’s sister, Zarah.
The family mourns the loss of a brother, son and nephew that they remember as warm, considerate, sociable and funny. A well-liked bartender at Huck Finn’s on the Water and Pogreba Restaurant, Shalim was always taking care of his parents and sisters, Zarah said, and was excited to go back to school at Western Technical College this fall to study physical therapy.
“Everyone loved Shalim,” she said. “I was known as ‘Shalim’s little sister,’ because he was so popular.”
But with that grief comes gratitude. The family wants to thank the entire La Crosse community for its support and prayers through the ordeal and as they heal from their loss. Patty Baumgartner, who manages Huck Finn's and coordinated Shalim's search party, deserves particular thanks, Patrick said.
“We are grieving, we are hurting, we are sad, but we have been touched by the care and love of the people here in this community,” Patrick said. “We are very grateful.”
The Augustine family shared a deep Christian faith, facing persecution and harassment from Islamic militants in Pakistan before immigrating to the United States, Patrick said. Shalim served as an acolyte at Christ Episcopal Church, where both his father and uncle were priests. Last Sunday in church, Shalim told his father that he wanted to return to his role and serve at the altar once again.
“He never got the time,” Patrick said. “I hope he serves in heaven at the altar of Jesus Christ.”
As news of Shalim’s death broke Friday night, his name joined the long list of young people who been found in the river after drinking. At least 12 people have died in alcohol-related accidents in La Crosse and Onalaska since 1997, not including drunken driving crashes.
In January, 21-year-old Ellen Ahmann drowned in a Mississippi River backwater after driving her car down an embankment and breaking through the ice. She had been working at a downtown La Crosse tavern and had a blood alcohol level of 0.16 percent.
A year earlier, in February of 2013, UW-La Crosse student Neala Frye was found dead in a ditch near the Spillway Pub in Onalaska, where she had spent the night working at a promotional event. Her cause of death was ruled hypothermia and intoxication; her blood alcohol level was 0.17 percent.
And two years before that, 21-year-old Craig Meyers drowned in the Mississippi River after being dropped off in the 700 block of Market Street on Feb. 14, 2010. Police found footprints leading out onto the ice and divers later recovered his body. His blood alcohol level was 0.19 percent.
Police said Shalim had been drinking Tuesday night, but they could not say whether he was impaired. Saturday’s autopsy will provide answers.
As a professor at UW-La Crosse, Chris Frye has seen La Crosse grapple with the issue of young people and river deaths for many years. Frye knew Shalim well from his involvement with the youth group at Christ Episcopal Church, and he calls the death a “horrible tragedy.”
“You can lay the blame on a lot of different things; it’s such a quagmire of issues,” he said of the city's history of river deaths. “As a parent, this is your worst nightmare.”