And officials warned “life-threatening” conditions along the lake are expected to continue for the coming days, with the National Weather Service predicting waves of up to 8 feet Tuesday.
This comes as Chicago-area children have two more weeks, including the popular Labor Day holiday, until many return to school. Lifeguards leave their posts for the season Sept. 3, raising concerns that warm waters could still attract people to unmanned beaches, and more children may be vulnerable to drowning.
According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a group that tracks drownings across the Great Lakes, 22 people have drowned in Lake Michigan this year. The number is fewer than this time last year when there were 30. But in the Chicago region alone, five children have drowned, passing last year's total by one and more than doubling 2016’s mark.
The memory of one such incident in July still haunts Halle Quezada.
It was the horrified expressions of a group of young boys that told Quezada something was very wrong.
She and her husband were enjoying a sunny evening near Loyola Beach in Rogers Park when the tranquil moment turned into a frenzied attempt to rescue children who had been carried away from shore by a rip current. Lifeguards had already left their posts for the day, but Chicago police officers, including one who was fully uniformed, jumped into the water in a desperate rescue effort.
A 13-year-old girl was brought ashore, her pupils dilated and her face gaunt. While the girl survived the near drowning, Darihanne Torres, also 13, was pulled from the water by first responders and pronounced dead hours later.
“I saw a child drown and I was 100 percent powerless to do anything,” said Quezada, who has since started the Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety, a group calling for more education and deterrents.
About 1 in 5 people who drown in the United States are children 14 and younger, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every child in that age group who drowns, five more receive emergency care after water incidents.
“A lot of people just don't know what drowning looks like,” Quezada said. Many times, “there's no splashing and screaming when someone is drowning. They just quietly go under.
“Kids tend to drown in open water,” she continued. “If you look at Chicago, we are open water.”
The girl who survived turned out to be the sister of one of Quezada's former students.
“For me, that really struck me. How can I be a teacher and send these kids off every summer without this knowledge they need to be safe?” she said.
Lake Michigan holds the dubious title of the deadliest of the Great Lakes. Since 2010, nearly 690 have drowned in the Great Lakes, including more than 310 in Lake Michigan, according to the rescue project. Only about a third are from dangerous currents, experts said.
“I believe that every one of these drownings is preventable, avoidable and survivable,” said Dave Benjamin, the project's executive director. “What’s missing is public education.”
Part of the reason Lake Michigan sees so many drownings is because of its proximity to major population centers like Chicago and Milwaukee. But this year is unusual. Lake Erie leads the Great Lakes in drownings with 23, which Benjamin suspects may be the result of a recent advertising campaign attracting people to the area.
“You draw more people and there’s a chance of more people drowning. It’s just the law of averages,” he said.
This weekend, three boys were the latest Lake Michigan drowning victims.
Lake County Coroner Howard Cooper on Sunday confirmed a 14-year-old boy’s death. The teen went under water Friday while trying to swim across a channel between Waukegan Harbor and the city’s beach.
A 10-year-old boy was pronounced dead Saturday night at Porter Regional Hospital and a 14-year-old boy died Sunday morning at Comer Children's Hospital after they were pulled from Lake Michigan in separate incidents near Indiana Dunes State Park. The boys were both from Chicago.
Known for its distinct, elongated shoreline that allows northerly winds to blow over 307 miles of open water, Lake Michigan is susceptible to dangerous waves and currents.
When winds blow directly onshore, that not only creates strong waves, but the possibility for dangerous currents, including rip currents that strongly flow away from the shoreline. Experts say people caught in rip currents shouldn't try to the fight them but rather float on their back until they dissipate or swim parallel to shore to get out of it.
Dangerous currents also form along shoreline structures like breakwaters and piers. Southern Lake Michigan, the most developed of any other part of the Great Lakes, has the most rip current fatalities and rescues, according to the National Weather Service database on rip current related drownings.
Quezada's Alliance for Waterfront Safety has started a petition calling for more flotation devices onshore and buoys to cordon off structures where there might be strong currents.
But water safety advocates also attribute the stubbornly high number of drownings to a lack of public education, insufficient lifeguard staffing and people failing to heed warnings about dangerous conditions.
Beginning in 2009, the Chicago Park District cut the number of hours lifeguards patrol beaches to an 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. window to save money. Since the death of Darihanne, lifeguards post red warning flags once their shifts end.
Benjamin said he believes some Chicago beaches are adequately staffed, nodding to 57th Street Beach, where he recently saw lifeguards in towers, walking the beach and in a rowboat. Others are more vulnerable.
“Unfortunately, not all beaches are up to standard. Some beaches are outstanding. Some are lagging,” he said.
Quezada and her group are pushing on these standards.
“If kids were dying out there at this rate at any other public park, we would be doing something about it. I don’t know why it’s any different when the hazard is water.”
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