Holger Kuester and members of his extended family had just started to walk off Grand Haven’s south pier late Wednesday afternoon when they heard screams.
Kuester said he turned back just in time to see a wave wash over the pier and a little girl hit the water.
“Her mother went in right after her,” the Allendale man said.
The mother, whom officials did not identify, was with another adult and several children taking a stroll on the lower west end of the south pier shortly after 5 p.m.
“They had six little kids out there,” Kuester said incredulously, as the wind off the lake whipped the channel into a chop.
Keuster and his brother, Ulrich Kuester of Spring Lake, sprang into action by grabbing life rings from the pier stands. By then, the woman had grabbed ahold of her 4-year-old child, Holger said. But the first toss of the life-saving device fell short.
Holger said he could see the woman and child were quickly drifting away.
“Mentally, I just placed where I wanted it to go and I threw it,” he said. “It went right past them. It couldn’t have been placed any better.”
Holger said the woman was able to hang onto her child and grab the life ring. The men on the pier were able to pull the mother and daughter to a nearby ladder and lift them out of the choppy water.
“I went down the ladder and grabbed the little girl,” Holger said. “My brother grabbed her other arm, then we pulled out the mother. They weren’t hurt — they were just shaking and scared.”
The release of the life rings activated emergency signals at Ottawa County Central Dispatch. Dispatchers told responding officers that a ring had been thrown and people were replacing it on its holder.
Police met with the family on the pier and escorted the woman and her daughter to paramedics, who were responding on an ATV from the Fisherman’s Parking Lot at the base of the pier. Paramedics checked out the pair, but did not transport them to the hospital, Grand Haven Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke said.
Hawke said the mother and daughter are from the east side of the state, but he did not have any more information about them.
Grand Haven State Park Officer Paul Vargo said the victims were about 100 feet in from the end of the pier when the girl was washed into the river.
State Park workers were the first officials on the scene, but the mother and daughter were already out of the water when they got there.
“It all worked like it was supposed to,” Vargo said of the life-saving actions and devices on the pier. “It wasn’t a tragedy.”
Vargo said strong winds out of the north-northwest led to a red flag warning at the park on Wednesday. He said that’s when it’s not safe to be on the pier.
“We’re getting waves smashing over the pier,” he said. “That’s what causes people to lose their footing. There’s a lot of power behind the water.”