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Drama student at UVSC drowns at California beach

A drama student at Utah Valley State College drowned Saturday during a school-sponsored trip to perform at a festival of college plays in California.

Christopher Fankhauser, 27, from Davenport, New Zealand, was swimming at San Clemente State Beach after a two-day performance at Chapman University's American College Regional Theater Festival.Fankhauser entered the water during extreme weather conditions. Unusually strong waves pounding the California coast pulled him under, said Steve Long, chief lifeguard of south Orange County state beaches.

Two other students, who were wading at the ocean's edge, nearly drowned trying to save him, Long said. Another student ran for a phone and called 911 about 3:30 p.m.

A lifeguard was at the scene in three minutes. Attempts to find Fankhauser in the crashing waves, believed to be caused by weather phenomenon El Nino, were unsuccessful, Long said.

"He was swimming during extreme conditions. It really was a downpour," Long said. "It was the enthusiasm of being out of school for awhile, of being near the ocean."

The Coast Guard and local search and rescue teams mounted a 24-hour search until the body washed up on the shores of a beach five miles south of San Clemente. Fankhauser's death was ruled an accidental drowning, Long said.

Another man died in a separate accident 40 miles from where Fank-hauser was found. Last week several people playing at the edge of the surf nearly drowned.

"For some reason, people are not being cautious," Long said. "The message we are sending out is that only the most experienced should go out. This is definitely one of the worst and most dangerous surfs I've seen in 10 years."

The cast of 13 was invited by festival organizers to perform "When People Become Real," a full-length play written by UVSC sophomore Paul Walstad. Fankhauer was a cast member and also helped write poetry featured in the two-hour play about a stormy relationship between a father and a son.

UVSC officials postponed a student production of "Comedy of Errors" until a replacement was found for Frankhauser, who had a supporting role. The Monday opening has been pushed back until Wednesday for a four-day run.

Fankhauser also had been rehearsing for the March opening of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII." The sophomore, who began attending the Orem college in fall of 1996, was cast as the lead character.

"This is a tragic event. Much of the play presented at the American College Theater Festival was based on Chris' life experiences," said Randall King, program coordinator for theater, film and speech. "Our students know each other so well, and losing one is devastating."

Fankhauser is survived by one son and an ex-wife who live in New Zealand.