Trying to make sense of a tragedy

Wil­li­am Tyrek Wilkin­son made an im­pres­sion on those who knew him. He gave up his own life while try­ing to save an­oth­er’s.

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.

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

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