Luke Homan, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student who drowned in the Mississippi River early Saturday morning, died with a blood-alcohol level of 0.32, according to preliminary information released Tuesday.
La Crosse County Chief Medical Examiner John Steers confirmed the 0.32 BAC, which is four times the legal limit to drive, in an interview with The Badger Herald Wednesday.
Excessive alcohol consumption has been a continuing point of frustration for UW-L officials. Seven drowning deaths have occurred in the area since 1997, and all have been related to alcohol.
"My first reaction [to Homan's death] was terrible sadness," UW-L alcohol education coordinator Mary Torstveit said. "[But] it was not an overwhelming surprise, and I say that because it has been happening in the past."
Like many universities, UW-L offers a number of programs designed to inform students about the dangers of alcohol consumption. And as is the case on many college campuses, the university feels excessive drinking continues to be a problem.
"My professional reaction was hard for me to figure out," Torstveit said. "It sure can't be for lack of information that alcohol-related accidents occur."
Torstveit said the university has tripled its efforts to inform students about the dangers involved in drinking.
"We've worked so hard to tell them things like 'stay in groups,' and 'be conscious of your situation,'" she said. "And when something like this happens, it's terribly sad, tragic and disappointing."
While alcohol likely played a role in the accidental drowning, all the events that transpired that night and early morning apparently took place off campus. Homan was last seen celebrating Oktoberfest at a night club in La Crosse early Saturday.
Cary Heyer, director of university relations for UW-L, said while the university has taken an "aggressive" stance on alcohol use, students ultimately make their own decisions.
"There isn't a student on campus who can say they haven't been told the dangers," Heyer said. "It comes down to individual responsibility."
Homan's death was not the first alcohol-related incident this year involving the Mississippi River. In January, UW-Madison student Cullen Fortney fell into the river but survived after pulling himself to safety. That incident, like Homan's, followed a night of drinking in downtown La Crosse, which is not far from the river.
The Fortney incident was also similar to the events of this week in that both men had separated from their friends and were alone when the incidents occurred.
UW-Madison Policy Alternatives Community Education director Sue Crowley maintained the importance of students going out together and remaining in a group until they get home.
"This is a horrible example of what can happen when someone has too much to drink," Crowley said. "Students need to be very aware of how much they're drinking, stay together and make sure everyone gets home safely."
Crowley added that student BACs at UW-Madison are often at or higher than the 0.32 level Homan registered the morning of his death.
"We're very fortunate it hasn't happened here," she added.
La Crosse Police have officially ruled Homan's death accidental. A release issued Tuesday by the La Crosse Police Department indicated an autopsy showed the cause of death was drowning and that no trauma indicating a struggle was found.
–Tom Schalmo contributed to this report.