College freshman on Christmas break dies on flight home: Family grieves, with no explanation yet
BURNSVILLE, Minn. — A Burnsville family is in shock over the sudden, unexplained death of their 18-year-old son, who fell asleep on a plane ride home for Christmas and never woke up.
A graduate of Burnsville High School and oldest of four children, Griffin Gutwa was the first to attend college since the family immigrated to the United States from Kenya in 2004. He was a freshman at the University of San Diego, studying to be a doctor.
He called his family the morning of Dec. 22 just before boarding a Delta Air Lines flight from San Diego to Minneapolis-St. Paul.
"He had just finished his exams," said his father, Gideon Gutwa. "He was excited to come home."
About an hour into the flight, Griffin asked for a drink of warm water. He drank it, and leaned his head against the window and fell asleep, according to other passengers on the plane.
The family is still trying to understand exactly what happened next.
The passenger next to him became concerned when his breathing changed, and called for a flight attendant. The attendant checked on him, realized something was wrong and asked for a medical professional to help.
Gutwa was not breathing, so the professional began CPR and the pilot began looking for a place to make an emergency landing. The nearest airport was in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Paramedics met the plane at the airport, but they were unable to revive Gutwa, the Sioux Falls Police Department confirmed.
Gideon Gutwa was told CPR was performed on his son for 45 minutes.
Griffin Gutwa's body was left in Sioux Falls, and the plane continued on to the Twin Cities.
About 6 p.m., Gideon Gutwa had swung by Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to pick up his son. He was told that the plane had been delayed for two hours. The delay didn't bother him, he said. It just gave him more time to run back to Burnsville to pick up the rest of the family.
When Gideon Gutwa returned, he had not even gotten out of his car when airport security approached.
He thought he had parked improperly, but when they asked if he was Griffin's father, he was confused.
"How come they know my son?" he said.
The officers directed him and the family to an office where they told him Griffin was dead.
"I thought I was dreaming. I could not believe it," Gideon Gutwa said. "He was very healthy. He had just been here for Thanksgiving. We were expecting him to arrive safe."
Gutwa went "berserk" and ran from the office, his friend Nyachae Oudimu said.
On Saturday afternoon, in their split-level Burnsville home, the family was still working through the shock. The basement family room was packed tight with family, friends and church members who, according to Kenyan tradition, will continue to visit the family until the funeral on Jan. 7. They sang Kenyan worship songs, prayed, hugged and mourned together
Gideon Gutwa sat apart with his brother in Griffin's room, while Griffin's mother, Gladys Makori, wept loudly upstairs. Griffin's sister Wendy, 15, and brothers Brian, 12, and Garvin, 9 were comforted by the others.
"It helps," Gideon said, of the well-wishers surrounding his family. "I have so many questions why, but there are no answers."
Described as a responsible, outgoing and helpful teen, Griffin Gutwa had planned to use his medical degree to help the less fortunate and always talked of returning to Kenya to start nonprofit organizations to help alleviate poverty.
"He loved serving the Lord," Gideon Gutwa said. The family attends Southview Seventh Day Adventist Church in Minneapolis.
The cause of his death is still under investigation by the Sioux Falls medical examiner.
Visitation is set from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 4, at the Washburn-McReavy funeral home in Edina.
The funeral will be held from 3 to 6 p.m. Jan. 7 at the church.
A GoFundMe account has been set up for the family at gofundme.com/griffin-gutwa.