A 19-year-old from Michigan who was vacationing in the Bahamas was killed when a gigantic wave swept him away as he was hiking. The tragedy came shortly after he asked his girlfriend’s family for permission to marry her.
Jonathan Brussow met his girlfriend, Athena Williams, at a summer party just after they finished the eighth grade. The two bonded the next year as they sat next to each other on the school bus after Brussow moved down the street from Williams. It was during those rides that their relationship blossomed.
“The minute he walked down to the bus, I just knew. I was so excited that Jonathan Brussow was on my bus,” Williams, 20, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, tells PEOPLE. “He later told me that he saw me, and he had butterflies in his stomach and didn’t know how he could talk to me without throwing up!”
As the couple readied to start their lives as young adults, Brussow felt the time was right to ask for his longtime girlfriend’s hand in marriage. But first, the young man wanted to ask Williams’ family for permission. While the couple was on vacation on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas with Williams’ family, Brussow did just that, as he secretly sat them down for a talk when Williams wasn’t around. Saying yes to him, Williams says, was always a given.
“Me and Jonathan, we knew we were going to get married. We knew we were still young, but—it sounds so cheesy—but we’ve just been so much in love. We didn’t spend a minute apart from each other unless we had to,” she says of Brussow, who was an adventurous “country boy” who loved dirt biking and hunting. “We were creating such a beautiful life together. I knew he wanted to propose to me but I didn’t know he was asking my parents.”
Just before dawn on March 5, Brussow woke Williams up and told her he was “going to be right back,” and left with Williams’ brother, Eric, for a hike up a nearby cliff to talk with him about the upcoming proposal. But as the hours passed with no sign of Brussow and her brother, Williams began to worry.
“The sun was coming up and I was looking out my window trying to look for him, waiting for him to come back and come lay down or something,” she recalls. “He didn’t come back.”
As the two men sat at the highest point of the cliff—which Williams says was at least 70 feet high—a freak wave came up and swept the two of them into the water below, leaving them to fight for their survival. Though Eric was badly injured, he managed to pull himself from the water by grabbing on to a rock.
With Brussow unable to return to shore, Eric ran for help. After borrowing a phone from a local woman, he messaged his sister and told her he was at a hospital. It wouldn’t be until a short time later that Williams found out Brussow wasn’t with him.
“After finding out that Eric was up on the cliffs, I couldn’t help but to scream and I instantly thought the worst,” she says. “That’s when we started calling everybody, we called every number possible.”
In the coming hours, Brussow’s father flew to the island as Williams and her family called the U.S. Embassy, Coast Guard, Ministry of Tourism and anyone else that could assist in the search. With time ticking and a storm adding difficulties to their efforts, local Bahamians rallied together, bringing the family water and food and never wanting money in return. They spent many hours searching with them, something which Williams says she will be forever grateful.
“We never stopped searching, we had so much hope,” she says. “If there was one person who could get out of this situation, it’s Jonathan Brussow, and anyone would tell you that.”
On March 9—four days after the incident—a search party recovered Brussow’s body, hundreds of yards from where the giant wave hit.
“It’s been a very tragic experience, but I’ve come to the conclusion that since this had to happen to us, I’m glad that it happened on this island,” Williams, who is still on the island but is returning to the states on Wednesday, says. “We wouldn’t have been able to come to peace with this situation to understand it, to get through it, without the people here. I couldn’t be more thankful.”
Though the family initially set up a GoFundMe to raise award money for anyone who found Brussow alive, they have now shifted the donation page’s mission. Now they hope to help cover the expenses for Brussow’s family to transport him back to Michigan and reimburse those who spent money to help in the search.
They’d also like to use the donations to purchase warning signs and safety gear that will be available near the island’s Glass Window Bridge—where the wave hit. This part of the initiative is being spearheaded by Eric in the hopes if someone is in need of help, equipment will be readily available. The island’s hospital is also in need of a mammogram machine, and this, too, is something they hope to provide.
Helping out the locals in a meaningful and lasting way will be a great way to honor the love of her life, Williams says.
“I would give anything to be able to have him here and be able to marry him and spend the rest of my life with him. It would have been beautiful, it would have been a beautiful life we would have made together,” she says. “We have been such great friends over the last six years together. I wish we had more time.”