Many facts, few answers in Philbin death

Many facts, few answers in Philbin death

Published Jan. 10, 2012 9:09 p.m. ET

OSHKOSH, Wis. — On Saturday, Michael Philbin fell through the narrow sheet of ice, his head visible briefly to a security guard at a nearby manufacturing plant who heard his cries for help.

By the time authorities responded early Sunday morning, the only indication of Philbin's distress was a small hole in the thin ice. A day and a half after the original 911 call, a body was pulled from the Fox River that splits this city. Police officially confirmed Tuesday that the body belonged to Philbin.

This tragic loss, the death of a 21-year-old, hits square in the middle of this area's most beloved institution: the Green Bay Packers. Michael was the son of Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.

"We love Michael so much and will miss him dearly," Joe Philbin said in a statement released by the team on Tuesday. "He loved his family, friends and life. His memory will live on in the hearts and minds of all who knew him. We are appreciative of the prayers and the support of our family, friends and the Packers family."

Law enforcement officials said Michael Philbin had been visiting friends at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, but it's not clear how Philbin ended up in the river, all too near a sign that ominously warns "Danger: Thin Ice."

The answers for this grief-stricken area of Packers country could come as toxicology reports come back in about a month and if leads are generated by police. Still, there is a lot that we do know about what led to the death of Joe Philbin's second-oldest of six children:

2:10 a.m., Sunday: Oshkosh police say Michael Philbin made a "non-distress" cell phone call that was traced to the area of the Fox River where he fell into the frigid water.

There's an asphalt trail that separates the waterline from a swath a grass. To the immediate northeast is Axel Tech International, a company that makes drivetrains for heavy machinery. A small square guard shack is situated just inside a tall chain-link fence. A block down Rockwell Avenue is the main campus of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Philbin was a junior at Ripon College, a small liberal arts college that remains on winter break about 20 miles away.

2:36 a.m.: The guard in the shack at Axel Tech calls 911 to report he heard male screams and saw a person in the river. Moments later, the guard tells dispatchers that the person — who was about 30 yards offshore — can no longer be seen.
Police and Oshkosh firefighters respond to the scene minutes later. Divers from the Oshkosh fire department soon begin the search.

"Panic and fear can all set in," Todd Christie, captain of the patrol division of the Winnebago County Sheriff's Department, told of what Philbin might have gone through. "Every situation is different. You could have enough ice where you can pull yourself back onto the ice."

But the temperature was just above freezing at the time, unseasonably warm weather for this time of year. The ice — which in January can stretch from bank to bank of the river — only extended about 50 yards offshore, about a third of the way and only a couple inches thick.

2:42 a.m.: Drivers from the Winnebago County sheriff's police water rescue team are dispatched to the area and join in the search. The use of a boat helps break up the ice.

The uneven floor of the river — combined with the ice — complicate the search.

"There's varying depths that go from three feet to 18 feet," Christie said of the challenges presented by the river. "This is an old logging river, so the bottom has its high and low points."

About 4 a.m.: The sheriff's department takes over for the fire department as it basically becomes a recovery operation.

"You just want to provide some closure to the family so they can move forward," Christie said. "That allows them to try to move on with the grieving process."

3:30 p.m.: Divers from the sheriff's department call off the search for the day.

8:13 p.m.: A missing person's investigation is launched after the friends Philbin was with the prior evening report say he had not returned to their residence.

8:00 a.m., Monday: Divers resume their search.

3:00 p.m.: The sheriff's department divers locate the body, which was then transported to the county's medical examiner's office.

"You could sort of see that developing story and you didn't want to believe that the missing person and the drowning victim were one in the same," Chris Ogle, vice president and dean of students at Ripon College, told "You could see it moving in that direction and you were hopeful there was going to be better outcome. Then you're caught in how do you talk about it and in what tense? You don't want to talk in the past tense as you're holding out hope."

A couple hours later, the Philbin family identifies the body. Law enforcement officials, however, heed the family's pleas for privacy and delay releasing the identification.

"The Packers family was saddened to learn of the passing of Michael Philbin," Packers GM Ted Thompson said in a statement Tuesday. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Joe, his wife, Diane, and the Philbin family as they cope with their loss. This is an emotional and difficult time for them, and we ask that everyone respect their privacy. All of us in the Packers family share in their grief."

It's not immediately known what role — if any — Joe Philbin will play as the Packers prepare to host the New York Giants in Sunday's divisional playoff game. Head coach Mike McCarthy calls the offensive plays, although that doesn't diminish Philbin's impact on the team's affairs or the loss of a child.
In the meantime, the Packers continue to grieve for the Philbins.

"Please say a prayer for the Philbin family," Packers offensive lineman Josh Sitton wrote on Twitter, one of several affiliated with the team to show their support publicly.