Jonathan Leber sat on top of his single-engine airplane as it sank into Lake Michigan, where he ditched it after running out of fuel five miles from Cudahy late Monday.
Audio: 911 call for help from Lake Michigan
He called 911 on his cell phone shortly before midnight, and he calmly tried to explain his predicament.
"I need help really fast," he said, according to tape of the call.
Within two minutes, however, he said, "I'm in the water." Waves can be heard, then a faint "help" before the call disconnects.
Help was on its way a short time later, but rescuers could not find Leber in the vast darkness, or even in the light of day. About 16 hours later, authorities called off their search for the 20-year-old college student, after no sign of him or the plane was found in hundreds of square miles covered by boats, helicopters and planes from the U.S. and Canadian coast guards.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Rolando Hernandez said Leber, a competitive swimmer, might have had mobility in the 46-degree water for about 90 minutes. He estimated survival time at less than three hours. Leber told the 911 operator he had no flotation devices on his rented plane.
If Leber did try to swim to shore, he would have faced 3-foot waves from a westerly wind, Hernandez said.
Leber was a junior at Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Watertown. He started flight lessons in 2002 and got his pilot's license in 2004, said Jeff Baum, president of Wisconsin Aviation Inc., in Watertown. Leber had rented the Piper Archer on Thursday for a trip to visit friends in Hamilton, N.Y., and was scheduled to return on Sunday. He delayed the return, however, because of poor weather, Baum said. He said he understood Leber had stopped to refuel during the trip.
Leber radioed the control tower at General Mitchell International Airport about 11:40 p.m. to say he was low on fuel, and airport officials used radar to alert the Coast Guard to his approximate location, Hernandez said. By the time the sheriff's dispatcher called, they had already headed out to look for Leber, Hernandez said.
The Coast Guard "exhausted all means" to try to find Leber, he said.
The Coast Guard employed a C-130 airplane from Canada, two helicopters from Michigan, two 41-foot patrol boats and a 25-foot patrol boat from Milwaukee, a Milwaukee Fire Department fire boat and two marine units from the Milwaukee Police Department, all to no avail.
They called off their search about 3:45 p.m. Tuesday.
"We were working against time," Hernandez said.
"Clearly, somehow or another, he made a mistake in his calculations," Baum said. "It's just sad. A young man enjoying his life and something went wrong."
At Leber's home in Springfield, Va., Tuesday, his family awaited word from authorities here.
"Several churches are praying for our son," Kathy Leber said. "We've seen miracles happen before. There's always hope until they find the body, whether it's dead or alive. There's always hope. That's the way we look at it. We're still hoping."
The family said Leber, a junior majoring in biblical studies, with an emphasis on missions, hoped to become a missionary aviator and start New Testament churches up and down the Amazon River.
"He was doing what the Lord led him to do, that was to be a missionary," his father, John Leber, said. "He did what he loved to do. That was to fly and preach the word."
Kathy Leber said she last spoke with her son about 10 p.m. Monday on his cell phone. He said he was over Lake Huron. She didn't want to keep him long, asking that he focus on his flying.
"She said, 'I love you.' He said, 'I love you.' That was the last words that we got," John Leber said.
Kathy Leber asked her son to call when he arrived home. When he didn't call, she figured he just forgot.
The phone rang three times at the Milwaukee County Sheriff's office.
Dispatcher: Milwaukee Sheriff 911 mobile. This is Mark. How can I help you?
Leber: Yeah, my plane ran out of fuel. I'm 5 miles off of Timmerman. And I need help really fast.
Dispatcher: OK, what are you doing sir?
Leber: I'm sitting on my plane right now.
Dispatcher: OK, are you flying or are you on the ground?
Leber: I'm in Michigan, Lake Michigan. . . .
Leber provides his name, cell phone number and the fact he can swim but has no flotation equipment before he slips into the water and the call ends.
Leber worked as an assistant coach for Watertown High School's boys' swim team, said Mark Kruse, the head coach who hired Leber three years ago. When Kruse saw how well Leber worked with students, he also took him on as his assistant coach with the Watertown Aquatic Team.
"I can't put a price on what he added to this team," Kruse said.
Leber's swimming skills were likely challenged by winds pushing the waters away from the shore, Hernandez said.
At the school, about 800 students and faculty learned of the loss as they gathered for daily morning chapel.
"It's a difficult time," said Doug Richards, dean of students. "We've been praying for the family. We're comforted in the fact in that we know where he is now. There's a time to be born and a time to die, the Bible says, but it's always difficult to leave behind friends."
ALL PLOTS PLEASE FLY SAFE. GREENFIELD,WI