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Va. Student Lost After Ditching Plane in Lake Michigan

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005; Page B08

Jonathan Leber was at home in the water and in the air.

When he returned home from college in Wisconsin, the 20-year-old Springfield man gave swimming lessons to children and led senior citizens in water aerobics at the Audrey Moore Recreation Center in Annandale.

And he loved to fly so much that he was preparing to become a missionary who would fly to remote reaches of South America to build churches.

Early Tuesday, Leber's rented plane ran out of fuel and plunged into Lake Michigan about five miles off Milwaukee. He survived the crash and called 911 on his cell phone pleading for help before the plane sank.

But rescue crews that searched through Tuesday called off the effort, saying he could not have survived the 44-degree water and three-foot waves.

"He could do five miles in practice," said his father, John. "I'm sure he gave everything he had trying to swim to shore. But in those conditions, it would have taken a miracle to make it."

Throughout yesterday, friends and neighbors filled John and Kathy Leber's Springfield home remembering their son as a man whose life was full of promise.

Leber had been swimming since age 5. He was a member of the Ravensworth swim team and attended competitive meets.

After graduating with honors in 2000 from Fairfax Baptist Temple Academy in Burke, he was hired by the Fairfax County Park Authority as a lifeguard. It was a job he returned to on summer vacations and holiday breaks, eventually becoming a popular instructor.

"His classes were packed," said Judy Pedersen, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Park Authority. "The ladies used to joke [that] the only reason they took his class was because it was led by a handsome young man. He was handsome, energetic and really friendly."

Thuy McMurray, whose daughter swam with Leber, said he was equally well-liked by the young children he taught.

"I would watch him help kids dog paddle," she said. "It gave him so much joy to see them reach the other side."

But Leber had other career plans.

He always had wanted to be a pilot and considered attending the Air Force Academy.

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