- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

Students at George Washington University yesterday mourned the death of a 20-year-old classmate who drowned in the District’s Tidal Basin late Saturday night — the fourth student death to strike the close-knit campus in three months.

Authorities identified the drowning victim as Phillip Robert Augustin, a sophomore business student from West Orange, N.J., who friends described as a gregarious and popular man who played the saxophone and enjoyed jazz.

The circumstances of the drowning remained under investigation yesterday, said Sgt. James G. Somers of the Metropolitan Police Department’s violent-crimes unit, which investigates the city’s unexplained deaths.

Sgt. Somers said witnesses told police that Mr. Augustin was with two friends walking along the banks of the Tidal Basin at about 10 p.m. Saturday, when he turned to his friends and made an inaudible comment before jumping into the water.

Divers recovered Mr. Augustin’s body from the Tidal Basin at about 11:15 p.m., said Sgt. Somers. An autopsy was scheduled for yesterday afternoon, which included a toxicology test to determine whether drugs or alcohol were involved.

Meanwhile, some of the school’s estimated 20,000 students were stunned by their classmate’s death, as they lounged on courtyard benches or strolled around the Northwest campus yesterday afternoon.

Groups of Mr. Augustin’s friends talked quietly while sitting on the steps of the townhouses that make up the halls and dormitories of the university’s sprawling campus.

Mr. Augustin’s friends said he was so well-known and well-liked at the school that they called him “the Mayor” of the campus.

“He was the friendliest kid I know,” said Laura Brigham, a 19-year-old psychology student from Boston. “He just had a presence. It is just really weird that he’s …” Her words trailed off before she turned and walked away.

Omar Griffin, a 20-year-old international-affairs student from New York City, said he didn’t think Mr. Augustin would have committed suicide, one of the theories police are investigating.

“There’s no way he killed himself,” Mr. Griffin said. “He enjoyed life too much. He was always smiling, always having a good time.”

Others on campus who were not personally acquainted with Mr. Augustin said they were perplexed by the odd circumstances surrounding his death. “That is such a tourist site,” said Shannon Kyle, a 19-year-old political-science major. “You wouldn’t think something like that would happen with a ton of people around, even that late at night.”

His death came on the opening day of the Cherry Blossom Festival, which draws thousands of people to see the blooming trees that ring the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial.

University President Joel Trachtenberg yesterday issued a statement expressing the sadness felt by the university community and extending its sympathies to the Augustin family. “This is one of the days we most need each other,” Mr. Trachtenberg said, “and we can only hope that our collective thoughts, prayers and support will be a source of strength and comfort to his family.”

Mosheh Oinounou, editor in chief of the GW Hatchet, the university’s independent student newspaper, said Mr. Augustin’s death sent ripples of grief throughout the entire school.

“It’s a small campus community, so if you don’t know him, you probably know someone who did,” he said.

Mr. Augustin was the fourth George Washington student to die in less than three months.

Last month, Jennifer Dierdorff, a 19-year-old sophomore, was found dead in a motel room in Arlington, apparently the victim of suicide.

In December, freshman Daniel Mendez, 19, was killed in a car accident while visiting his home in Panama, and law-school student Chris Bartok, 26, drowned after falling into the Potomac River at Rock Creek Parkway and Virginia Avenue.

“It is sad that tragedy has hit us so many times,” Mr. Oinounou said. “I just hope we can cope as well with this one as we have with the past ones.”

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