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Trying to make sense of a tragedy

Ed Wilkinson talks about the death of his son William, 17, who drowned in the Delaware River after trying to save another teen on May 25.

Above all else, William Tyrek Wilkinson was a self-assured young man.

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Known simply as Tyrek to family and friends, the 17-year-old Mayfair resident exuded confidence and charisma wherever he went, even in the direst circumstances.

That’s why the manner in which he died, though tragically shocking, came really as no surprise to his loved ones. Wilkinson died while heroically trying to save a fellow teen from drowning in the Delaware River late last month.

“I just want to thank everybody for all of their support and let everybody know that William died a hero’s death,” said Ed Wilkinson, the teen’s father. “You never know what kids learn from you until times like this. Then you learn their character.”

Through witness accounts, police were able to piece together the events leading up to the younger Wilkinson’s death.

At about 6 p.m. on May 25, Tyrek and at least two other youths were hanging out along the bank of the Delaware River just south of Pennypack Park and the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

Police initially said publicly that an 18-year-old female apparently fell into the river and was in danger of drowning. So two other teens — Wilkinson and a 19-year-old male — jumped into the river in an attempt to save the young woman.

The older two teens made it back to shore safely, but Wilkinson was swept under by the river’s strong current and did not resurface.

Police, firefighters and members of the U.S. Coast Guard searched the river for the remainder of the evening and, after an overnight break, resumed the effort early on May 26. They found Wilkinson’s body at about 5 p.m. that day on the riverbank, a short distance downstream from where he was last seen.


Relatives of the victim inspected the scene after the fact and described it as a vacant industrial property, according to Ed Wilkinson.

“They were in a secluded area behind some old factory,” the father said. “It’s just a bunch of lots. We couldn’t figure out why they went down there. But as teenagers, we all had our different cuts and hangouts. That was a well-known hangout according to the police.”

Authorities gave the elder Wilkinson a more-detailed account of events.

“When (Tyrek’s) friend went into the water, she screamed for help and a couple of bystanders went into the water,” Ed Wilkinson said. “But (the young woman) was screaming, so they couldn’t get near her.”

That’s when the younger Wilkinson’s confidence and sense of duty kicked in.

“William jumped in to try to calm her down,” Ed Wilkinson said. “But he’s a swimming-pool swimmer and he didn’t know the currents.

“(Police) say they were almost one-hundred yards out. The current pulled (the young woman) one way and William another. They said even the (search) divers had problems with the undertow, and they’re professionals.”

The Wilkinson family and the community lost a young man with great potential, according to his father and his stepmom, Sabrina Wilkinson. Tyrek is also survived by a brother, two half-brothers and several step-siblings.

A junior at Abraham Lincoln High School, Tyrek Wilkinson spent much of his early youth living in North Philadelphia and Coatesville, Chester County. He played sports as a child but developed into more of an intellectual in his teen years, according to his father.

He was a good student, despite the occasional academic hiccup, and he was involved in other extracurricular activities.

“He did music and was involved in a modeling program. He did a little bit of everything,” Ed Wilkinson said.


The younger Wilkinson worked two jobs, including one with a party-hosting service in which he would dress in full-body costumes, such as an Elmo outfit, and entertain young people. He also did child face-painting for the company. With his earnings, he was able to pay for his recent junior prom.

His greatest passion, however, was sewing and fashion design. Wilkinson was well-known for creating clothing and accessories for himself and his friends.

“He could go down to the thrift store, buy a couple things and make a whole new outfit,” Ed Wilkinson said. “He was looking forward to going to school — college — for designing.”

“He has female friends and used to make them pocketbooks out of old T-shirts and jeans,” Sabrina Wilkinson said. “I just knew Tyrek was going to be a famous designer some day.”

The family was happy that the young man had found a calling in life and sought to be a positive influence on those around him.

“I just wanted him to be an individual and (told him) don’t be in a bad crowd, don’t be a troublemaker, don’t be a clown, don’t be ‘that guy,’” Ed Wilkinson said.

According to his father, Tyrek’s friends have posted many fond memories of him on his Facebook page.

“There’s a lot on Facebook about how he helped them in their classes. A girl said he was like her big brother,” Ed Wilkinson said. “We’ve heard a lot of things, all positive.”

On the negative side, the family is having a difficult time putting together the funding needed for a proper memorial service for the young man.

A viewing is scheduled for Thursday, June 9, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., at the Germantown Church of the Brethren, 6601 Germantown Ave. A service will follow. Interment will be private.

Those wishing to send flowers may do so directly to the church.

Late last week, the family still wasn’t certain how it was going to handle the unexpected expense. Calls were made to several public agencies seeking financial support with no success.

“It’s because he wasn’t murdered,” Sabrina Wilkinson said. “I called six different agencies who offer assistance for funerals, but only if he was murdered. That, I think, is a tragedy in itself.”

More than anything, they want Tyrek to be remembered.

“It was selfless,” Sabrina Wilkinson said of the teen’s efforts to save his friend.

“I’m glad for that,” Ed Wilkinson said. “That’s how he was always taught, to have confidence in himself. He was always confident in himself and in what he could achieve.” ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com

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