Tragic day at GH State Park

Becky Vargo • Aug 5, 2018 at 9:31 PM

UPDATE: 11:50 a.m. Monday: Police have released the name of the second drowning victim from Sunday afternoon. He is Jeremiah Diaz, 20, of Lansing.

The 46-year-old Alto man, who was in serious condition, and the two Lake residents, ages 20 and 17, remain in stable condition at North Ottawa Community Hospital, according to Grand Haven Department of Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke.


Two men drowned and several others were hospitalized Sunday afternoon when they were caught in rip currents while swimming in a roiling Lake Michigan at Grand Haven State Park. 

Grand Haven Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke identified one of the drowning victims as 64-year-old David Knaffle of Wyoming. 

The other drowning victim was a 20-year-old Lansing man. His name was withheld pending family notification, Hawke said. 

A 46-year-old Alto man was hospitalized in serious condition after bystanders pulled him from the water.

Two residents of the town of Lake – a 20-year-old male and a 17-year-old female – were also hospitalized and were in stable condition as of late Sunday evening.

Other swimmers in distress were able to self-rescue, or were helped by bystanders, Hawke said.

The red flag was flying and beach hazard alerts had been issued prior to the series of incidents Sunday at the popular Lake Michigan beach.

The day after the Coast Guard Festival finale dawned hot and humid. The Lake Michigan water temperature was reported to be in the low 70s.

But winds out of the south picked up overnight with gusts above 30 mph, according to WZZM-TV meteorologist Alana Nehring. 

“This makes the current go parallel to the shore – thus the long shore current,” she said.

Along with this were the rip currents, which are like little rivers going from shore out into the lake.

Grand Haven’s South Pier was stopping the motion of the long shore current, thus causing it to try to go around the pier. This is the structural current, Nehring said.

Swimming against these currents is like swimming against very strong jets in a lap pool, she said.

“No one is strong enough to swim out,” Nehring said. “You need to let it carry you until it dissipates. Unfortunately, most people try to fight it.” 

A beach hazard alert issued by the National Weather Service on Saturday said beachgoers should expect to see waves 3-5 feet high.

“When you’re standing on shore, your brain tells you, ‘I’m taller than that,’” Nehring said. “But the period between the waves can be greater than five feet.” 

People also fail to understand the power of the currents. 

“Even the strongest swimmers can be overpowered,” she said.

Timeline: A deadly day unfolds

12:05 p.m.

Emergency crews responded to the Grand Haven State Park on a call of a swimmer in distress.

When police arrived, the swimmer had gone below the surface.

An off-duty Grand Rapids firefighter tried to locate the victim, and then was joined by five GHDPS officers and a park ranger.

Police organized a human chain and located the victim at about 12:17 p.m.

Witnesses said the man was brought to shore and CPR was initiated.

Paramedics transported the man to North Ottawa Community Hospital, where he later died. 

3:22 p.m.

Bystanders pulled a 46-year-old Alto man from the water. Police and paramedics supplied first aid and the man was taken to North Ottawa Community Hospital, where he was listed in serious condition.

A medical helicopter landed at the hospital later in the afternoon, but it is unknown whether or not that man was taken to another hospital.

3:48 p.m.

Police received reports of multiple swimmers struggling in the water north of the park pavilion building.

Bystanders had pulled five swimmers from the water, including the two individuals from the town of Lake. Both of those swimmers were admitted to the hospital in stable condition.

Officers formed several human chains to search for another swimmer who hand gone under and was missing.

The 20-year-old Lansing man was spotted by beachgoers and officers retrieved him in five feet of water. Officers performed CPR, but the man was pronounced dead at North Ottawa Community Hospital.

Additional reports of possible swimmers in distress were received for areas near and south of Grand Haven City Beach.

More than 20 firefighters and police officers were assigned to rescue teams to search for possible victims.

They eventually stopped searching when they did not find anyone and determined no other people were reported missing.

Throughout the afternoon, assistance was provided on the water by fast response boats from Coast Guard Station Grand Haven and the Ottawa County Sheriff Marine Patrol. A Coast Guard helicopter circled the area as well.

Assisting city police were Grand Haven Township Fire Rescue, Spring Lake Township Fire Rescue, Ferrysburg Fire Department, Robinson Township Fire Department, the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, Ottawa County Dive Team, North Ottawa Community Hospital paramedics as well as state park staff and DNR officers.

A DNR officer emphasized the fact that there were several different currents at play off the State Park beach, prompting a red flag.

“That’s why people should stay out of the water,” he said. 

State Park staff closed entry to the park most of the afternoon while emergency crews were on the scene. Police also asked everyone remaining on the beach to stay out of the water, other than those helping in the human chains.

Police crews stayed at the park beach until about 7 p.m. 

Nehring said the wind was expected to die down, but it would still be breezy and the lake would still be choppy into Monday.


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