A set of human remains discovered on the receding shoreline of Lake Mead has been identified, and a family missing their father for 20 years now know what happened to him.
On Wednesday, the Clark County coroner's office identified a set of remains discovered on May 7 at Lake Mead National Recreation Area as those belonging to Thomas Erndt, who was 42 when he drowned in the lake on Aug. 2, 2002.
Erndt's son, also named Tom Erndt, was just 10 years old when the accident happened. He told KSNV-TV that a late-night family boating trip ended in tragedy after his father jumped in the water.
“He was the most awesome father I can ever ask for,” Tom said. "I miss him every day."
Tom said the family used to take their boat out from Callville Bay for what they called a "midnight cruise." That night, Tom went out on the boat with his father, sister, and several family members and friends. When no one would get in the water, Thomas Erndt took off his shirt and jumped in.
“He was a big joker and stuff too,” Tom said. "At first it was like, ‘Oh, I'm drowning hahaha,’ kind of thing, right? And it turned into screaming and yelling and ‘I need help!’”
But the family lost sight of their father in the darkness, and they were out of cellphone range. By the time they were able to call 911 for help, Thomas Erndt had disappeared beneath the waves.
“It has been very hard, and the last 20 years, I celebrate his birthday every year and his passing,” Tom told KVVU-TV. He said he was very close with his father, who was an aircraft mechanic.
“Me, as a kid, I would always be there helping him and passing him tools, I mean it was awesome,” Tom recalled.
“It is going to take a lot of time for me to move forward and remember this,” he said.
A coroner with the Clark County coroner's office told the Associated Press in a statement that investigators used DNA and reports of Erndt's disappearance to identify the body. An official cause and manner of death were not determined.
“My dad was in a really bad car accident a long time ago and hurt his shoulder really bad, so we were thinking it was his shoulder gave out. On top of it my dad was diabetic, so we were thinking he didn’t take his insulin or something like that,” Tom tokd KVVU.
Authorities are still working to identify a man who was killed by gunshot and whose body was discovered in a rusted barrel on the shore of Lake Mead on May 1. The man's clothing indicated he died sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, and police said his death is being investigated as a homicide.
There have since been several grisly discoveries at Lake Mead as the water levels have receded more than 170 feet amid a historic drought. The man-made reservoir has fallen to just 27% of its capacity, its lowest level since being filled in 1937.
But Tom Erndt, who now lives in San Francisco, California, told KSNV he wants his father to be remembered as a person who was loved, not just some remains found at the lake.
“I've always thought something would pop up, but just knowing that in my head, I guess it kept me from hoping that maybe there's a possibility that I would see my dad again,” Tom said. "Now that I got this news, I know that I'm not going to. So it's been very hard.”
Although he finally knows what happened to his dad, Tom said he has still not found full closure for himself.
“I think it's just a whole other book that is opened,” Erndt said. “But at the same time, it's another book that is closed. So I guess now it's just one day at a time until I can physically let him go.”