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Reviewing the dangerous lake

Becky Vargo • Aug 22, 2018 at 10:00 AM

Two and a half weeks after two men drowned in Lake Michigan at the Grand Haven State Park and a week after another young man drowned off Windsnest Park in Port Sheldon Township, emergency officials are still mulling over ways to improve communications and warnings about dangerous conditions in the Great Lakes.

Ron Olson, chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division, said in a debriefing following the double drowning on Aug. 5 at the state park that a more robust way of making announcements is probably something that can be done. How they would accomplish that is yet to be sorted out, he said.

“We already have systems (emergency plans) in place,” Olson said. “It’s a matter of getting compliance. The issue is, we can inform people, but they have to listen and pay attention.”

Aug. 5

The red flag was flying at Grand Haven State Park on the afternoon of Aug. 5, but the air was warm. The water was also warm and people were playing in the Lake Michigan surf, with waves of 3-6 feet.

At about noon, emergency crews were dispatched to the park when a man struggling in the water went beneath the waves. A human chain full of beachgoers, organized by the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety, found 64-year-old Wyoming resident David Knaffle within 15 minutes, but Knaffle died a short time later at North Ottawa Community Hospital.

Later in the afternoon, police responded to calls of several other people in distress off the state park beach. Three people were hospitalized after being pulled from the water by bystanders. Two others sought their own treatment.

Several human chains were formed, but they could not find a missing 20-year-old Lansing man.

Shortly after coming out of the water, people on shore spotted Jeremiah Diaz and police pulled him from the water, about 5 feet deep. Diaz also died a short time later at NOCH.

Olson said that longtime state park staff said the particular confluence of the waves and wind that day was the worse they had ever seen. It resulted in longshore currents, rip currents and a structural current alongside the south pier.

Park staff put up the red flag at about 7:30 that morning, Olson said. Beach hazard warnings were also issued by the National Weather Service and promoted across all forms of news and social media.

Despite the warnings and the presence of police, DNR officers, firefighters and paramedics, and the drownings, people were still going into the water. 

Officers drove up and down the beach until 7 p.m. to warn people to get out and stay out of the water. 

Would lifeguards have helped?

Olson said that even lifeguards would not have been enough that day.

“(That) Sunday, you couldn’t have enough lifeguards” because of the crowds of people on the beach, he said. “Even closing the beach is challenging. People just keep going back in.”

There haven’t been any lifeguards at Grand Haven State Park since 1992, Olson said.

“There’s no direct guarantee that having them is more or less safe,” he explained.

When you do have them, parents with little kids think that the lifeguards are going to watch their children for them, Olson noted.

Beach flags

Olson said the flags are a uniform program with the parks, and park staff change them as conditions change.

“When flags are yellow and red, you need to pay attention and take heed,” he said.

Grand Haven Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke said his department is always looking for ways to improve emergency operations. He noted that the human chains made of volunteers on Aug. 5 were the best option for the conditions at the time.

“Rescue swimmers are less effective when the exact location of the victim is unknown,” Hawke said.

The chief emphasized his thanks for all the help from the agencies and citizens that day.

No further information was available on the people who were hospitalized after the Aug. 5 incidents, but officials said they were all expected to be OK.

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