Lake Michigan holiday rescues, recoveries mark deadliest period in lakefront history
First responders worked several rescue and recovery missions over a 24-hour period
By Nell Salzman
CHICAGO — After a hot and muggy Labor Day drew thousands of beachgoers and boaters to Lake Michigan Monday, a safety expert is calling the holiday one of the deadliest for the lakefront in recent history as emergency responders worked double time in rescue and recovery missions over a 24-hour period.
Responders pulled two bodies and a woman in critical condition from Lake Michigan Monday and Tuesday morning, authorities said. Another person was still missing as of Tuesday evening.
“At this point we’ve been searching since 9 a.m., it’s considered a recovery,” said Chicago Fire Department spokesperson Larry Langford about the missing boater.
Authorities called off the rescue mission after an hour of searching for the man, who had gone into the lake from a 27-foot boat around 9 a.m. Tuesday about a mile away from shore.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 9th District, which monitors the Great Lakes region, the man along with a woman had gone into the lake, but the woman was able to make it back into the boat. The man went under and was not seen resurfacing, according to the Coast Guard. There were no updates on the missing man as of Tuesday evening, said Anthony Spicuzza, a Chicago Police Department spokesperson.
The mission was one of several weekend water emergencies that were making it one of the deadliest Labor Day weekends across the Great Lakes since the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project began tracking drownings in 2010, according to Dave Benjamin, the group’s co-founder and executive director.
“We call it the four Ws,” Benjamin said. “If you have warm, wind, waves, on a weekend, you’re going to see an influx of drownings.”
Monday marked the last official day of the swimming season in Chicago and — on a day that saw temperatures soar past 90 degrees — thousands had flocked to the beaches and parks along the lakefront while countless more boaters floated in the lake.
In northwest Indiana, East Chicago police responded to the scene where a teen died after jumping off a breakwall along Lake Michigan, even though he and the group he was with were advised against it, authorities said.
Witnesses at the scene said a group of teens were jumping off near Jeorse Park around 4:20 p.m. Monday, Indiana Department of Natural Resources spokesman Alex Neel said in a release Tuesday. The witnesses said the boy jumped off the rocks and started to struggle before disappearing in the water, Neel said.
First responders on the scene contacted the Lake County sheriff’s dive team, which recovered the unconscious and unresponsive teen, according to the East Chicago Police Department’s social media page. He was taken to St. Catherine Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, Neel said.
The teens he was with tried to help him but weren’t able, and it’s unclear how long he was submerged, the East Chicago police release said. Marina staff had told the group not to jump off the pier, both the police release and Neel said.
Then, just after 10:20 p.m. the Chicago Police Department’s Marine Operations Unit responded to a call about a man who witnesses said jumped into the water at a beach near 49th Street. Police recovered the man, 27, in critical condition and brought him to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where he died. The Cook County medical examiner’s office identified the man as Kenyatta Freeman Jr. of Markham.
The following morning, around 2:15 a.m., police responded to a report of a 46-year-old woman who dived into the water near the south end of Montrose Harbor and did not surface. She was brought to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in critical condition.
Drownings also occurred in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario over the weekend, Benjamin said. As of Sept. 1, there had been 31 drownings in Lake Michigan and 63 in the Great Lakes overall.
“When we were looking at this a couple weeks ago, Lake Michigan drownings were down 36% over the previous year,” said Benjamin. “Now because of this spike and a couple of other incidents, we could surpass last year.”
Ricky Castro, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the drownings were not likely caused by weather conditions, but rather “other extenuating circumstances.” Though there was near record-breaking heat, winds were not strong over the lake and the waves stayed small.
Castro said the mild southerly winds did not pose a hazard to swimmers Monday, but that doesn’t mean that other factors weren’t at play.
“Whatever the conditions are, it’s never considered safe,” he said. “You can never say you’re fully safe.”
Michele Lemons, a spokesperson for the Chicago Park District, noted the rescue and recovery missions “occurred at nondesignated swim areas or after the beaches closed for swimming and Park District lifeguards were no longer on duty,”
Because Labor Day marks the last day of Chicago’s swimming season at beaches and outdoor pools, there will be no lifeguards on duty until May 24 next year, Lemons said.
Benjamin, who has taught water safety and worked with families of drowning victims and with officials and residents who want to make their beaches safer, stressed that swimmers now enter the water at their own risk.
He said swimmers should practice due diligence in the coming weeks.
Lake Michigan, he said, can be unpredictable. Offshore rip currents can pull swimmers away. Sandbar formations can quickly turn into deep drop-offs.
He said every individual who enters the water, even if they are a strong swimmer, should acknowledge the risks.
The Post-Tribune contributed.