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Avoiding a drowning tragedy in Lake Superior

Jul 14, 2018 07:01AM ● By Editor

 From WDIO-TV on July 13, 2018

It's what is perhaps the 'dark side' of our Great Lakes.  On average 82 people per year since 2010 have died in those waters, including Lake Superior.

"Lake Superior can get really nasty, really quick. It's known for being the worst out of all the Great Lakes," said Petty Commander Erik Soderman with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Last August, it was in those frightening condition that 10-year-old Lillian Fuglie and her father, Ryan lost their lives on Park Point.

Under Water Searching for Air Pt 2

Last week, it was a 13-year-old girl in Lake Michigan.

"I saw someone struggling so I swam over there and the water was really rough," said Nelson Lovera. He helped a police officer who was struggling in that rescue.

"I think people who have been in big waves in the ocean and they see those waves here, they think it's going to be the same and it's nowhere close," said Duluth Fire and Rescue Captain, Kevin Haney.

Haney says Superior's risks are higher.

"Our waves here are much closer together. They are five and seven seconds apart, where when you're in the ocean, they are around 12 seconds apart," said Haney. 

For his team, during a rescue timing is everything, which is why they've made some changes in their response.
"We've improved our water capabilities considerably since August of last year, when we realized the suits that we had and the waves that we're fighting against didn't work together at all," said Haney.
The department now has a new jet ski they've started training with to help them get to victims faster and easier, after the boat they used in last year's rescue didn't do well in the adverse conditions.

"At some point, a wave caught them and flipped them," said Haney, recalling last year's rescue.

They also have new dry suits instead of the ice rescue ones that Captain Haney says did not work in that rescue effort.

"They're (the ice rescue suits) not made for swift water nor are they made for surf," said Haney."Even with those suits full of water, they retained some buoyancy to them but it doesn't feel like it when you're inside of that suit. It feels like it's trying to pull you down."

"We train as much as we can in hopes that that'll keep us safe," Haney added.

While rescuers improve their own operations, the next step is for our community to learn when not to put themselves in dangerous waters.

"As far as whether or not, it's common sense to stay out, I don't know that. I know folks really enjoy the waves," said Jesse Schomberg with the Minnesota Sea Grant.
Schomberg is part of a group of city, fire and other officials who teach how to identify rip currents and when to avoid the water.

"Through that collaboration, many of things you see on the beach to warn folks about rip currents have come about," said Schomberg.

The biggest things are the rip current flags and signs updated daily by the Duluth Fire Department. Other things people may see are these safety stations with throw rings that explains what to do to help someone in trouble.

"We got big waves. I know the flag is green today, but with waves coming in like this, I would say that there's a potential for rip currents," said Schomberg last week.

Other good rules to follow are always wear a life jacket while swimming, never go out alone, and parents should always pay very close attention. 
"Drowning doesn't look like it does in the movies with yelling a splashing and all that sort of things. It's silent, their hands are up, their mouth is up, and they're not making any noise, Schomberg added.

In the case, you find yourself in a rip current knowing what to do is also key. The most important but hardest is to stay calm, and not waste energy fighting the current. Instead, swim parallel to the shore until you break out of it.

"If you know what's happening, they're not all that dangerous," said Schomberg."You can float, keep your head above water and wait for somebody to rescue you."

Unless you're a trained professional, going out after someone should never be an option. In the end, they know the work is ongoing.

"Hopefully, people become more and more aware of that flag system," said Haney.

That tragic day in August there was a red flag warning in effect so it remains a continuing effort to keep local residents and visitors informed.

"You're never going to stop everybody and we don't know and we'll never know if they (the Fuglies) didn't understand the red flag system, or why they were out there in those type of waves," said Haney."In my opinion, it's the best system we have and can put forth." 

"One thing, we now have is a billboard that's up along I-35 that advertises the Park Point Beach website," said Schomberg.

The hope is that folks heading to the area will check the website to see if conditions are safe. They've also begun working with local hotels to provide the life-saving information. They hope all their efforts pay off.

"It's hard to tell people not to use the water and not to use Park Point because it's beautiful, it's alluring," said Haney.

Alluring and beautiful, but a beauty that must  be respected if we are going to save lives.

People can visit the Park Point Beach website or the U.S. Coast Guard website for more tips for prevention.

Watch the WDIO-TV report on avoiding water tragedy in Lake Superior

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