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Costa Rica finds body of US student missing at sea

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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica » Costa Rican rescuers on Friday found the body of a third U.S. high school student who was swept out to sea while taking a beach break during a religious mission.

A coast guard patrol recovered the body of Kai Lamar in waters off Bejuco beach on the Pacific coast, said Jesus Escalona, Red Cross assistant director of operations. The bodies of the other two students, Caity Jones and James Smith, were found earlier this week.

A strong undertow pulled the three away from shore Wednesday afternoon, according to a statement from their school, Patriot Preparatory Academy in Columbus, Ohio. They were among eight juniors and seniors on a trip not sponsored by the school.

Escalona said the body was found in roughly the same area where Smith’s body was recovered a day earlier. He said the body fit Lamar’s description and rescuers called off the search.

The bodies were taken to a morgue where relatives or U.S. Embassy officials can claim them. The U.S. Embassy has declined to comment, citing privacy restrictions.

Wednesday, the day before they were to return to Ohio, was a free day, and students were given a choice of whether they wanted to ride horses near a waterfall or go to the beach, the brother of one of the students told an Ohio television station.

"Unfortunately, it was just a fatal mistake," Smith’s brother Nick Smith told WCMH-TV in Columbus.

He said the trip was the first mission for his brother and that he had worked to raise every penny needed to pay for the trip.

"That kid was more driven to do things for God than I’ve seen anybody at his age ever. … He was doing things and so committed that honestly, in 16 years, he finished everything he needed to do in this life," Smith told the station.

A message seeking comment was left by The on Friday at a phone listing for Smith’s parents.

Shari Lamar, Kai Lamar’s mother, said that while her family was saddened by her son’s death, they found some comfort in knowing he had taken advantage of an opportunity "to show his love for the Lord and to do what he thought he was called to do."

"He and his friends had the time of their life doing the work," she said in a telephone interview with The . "It just brought them great joy. They were phenomenal kids. … It’s sad, but we just trust God."

The three students swept away, all juniors, were described as active in school and the community, well-liked and good students.

The mission was organized by Ohio-based Impulse International Mission Trips, where a spokeswoman said no one could comment Friday. The students visited an orphanage, a drug rehabilitation center and some villagers, according to a post by Lamar on a blog the group was keeping on the trip. The group also played soccer, colored and read with youngsters at a community center and did some painting at a Salvation Army church.

The K-12 school, on the city’s east side, is a former private Christian school that converted this year to a charter school, meaning it is publicly funded but privately run. It has about 500 students.

Students had made the same volunteer trip to Costa Rica in the past when the school was private, said Paul Blythe, a friend of the Jones family and a school board member whose children graduated from the school. They raised funds and obtained sponsors to pay for the trip, he said.

In 2006, three Kansas students and their teacher drowned in Costa Rica while on a Spanish language immersion trip. A group of students were swimming and some were swept away by strong currents. At least two were rescued, but the teacher and one of the students died trying to save the others.

"These beaches are some of the most dangerous beaches in the world," said David Angueira, a Boston attorney who brought a wrongful death lawsuit against a tour operator over the 2006 deaths. "These beaches are unbelievably dangerous, rip currents like you wouldn’t believe. And our kids just keep drowning."

At least 52 people have drowned at sea in Costa Rica this year, said Freddy Roman, another Red Cross spokesman. While that appears to mark an increase from the 2010 full-year total of 76, Roman said he did not think it was a trend, noting last year’s number was far below the usual. There were 103 drownings registered in 2009 and 128 in 2008.

Emergency officials have attributed the drop last year to an overall decrease in vacationers caused by an economic downturn.

Jim Batres, assistant director for rescues and operations for the Red Cross of Costa Rica, said the Red Cross is the only agency that offers lifeguard service at Costa Rican beaches, but doesn’t have a big enough budget to cover all the beaches full time.

Batres said there are only about 60 volunteer lifeguards for all the country’s beaches. Some hotels hire their own lifeguards, and there are signs on many beaches warning about hazards.

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