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Hazardous Lake Michigan conditions put even first responders in danger during rescue


By Megan Hickey

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    CHICAGO (WBBM) — A morning swim during hazardous conditions in Lake Michigan on Sunday turned into a dramatic, large-scale rescue that also put first responders in danger.

A Beach Hazard Warning was in effect at the time of the rescue. CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey had the story.

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project said those signs are often missed or ignored. Fortunately, the swimmer in this case survived, but experts said more needs to be done to prevent scenes like Sunday’s.

If it’s not obvious enough from the crashing waves, a red flag at a Chicago beach means conditions do not meet safe swimming standards and no one should be in the water.

“The waves are crashing so hard, so I would just suggest people be careful,” said Erika Zermeno.

But Chicago police said a 61-year-old man was swimming near Oak Street Beach on Sunday morning when he was overcome by the waves.

CBS 2’s cameras were rolling when the Chicago Fire Department’s dive team arrived. Even the trained divers were hurled back onto the concrete by the enormous waves.

Terrifying minutes passed before a man was dragged out. Witnesses watched as a rescuer also needed to be rescued.

“We saw one of the firemen being dragged out with their rope from the firemen and the equipment,” Zermeno said.

CBS 2 spoke to David Benjamin, the co-founder and executive director of the Great Lake Surf Rescue Project.

“We need to understand that a drowning incident is a marathon for your life,” Benjamin said.

He added the beach warning system is not always full proof.

“We believe oftentimes that most people never even get the warnings unless they’re actively looking for what are the beach conditions going to be like today?” Benjamin said. “If they’re hyper-aware of water safety.”

Benjamin suggested programmable LED beach signs could help and pointed out that this particular section of the beach is not a sanctioned swim area and does not have a lifeguard.

“So, if there are some type of a beach ambassador person who’s employed by the city to educate people saying jumping in here could cost your life,” he said.

Drownings along the lake are down so far this year, but the reasons why might be surprising.

Benjamin said there have been at least 20 drownings in Lake Michigan in 2023, which is about a 40% drop compared to the same time period last year. There are a couple of reasons for the decrease, which won’t necessarily hold for the rest of the summer.

“We had a very cold, wet spring, and even early summer,” he said. “Cold weekends, a lot of rainy weekends. Even this past weekend, it’s been cooler and wet and rainy. So that’s kind of a natural deterrent. In addition, we’ve had, like the Canadian wildfire smoke that has had action days to keep people probably indoors and away from the water.”

Benjamin added he worries that warmer weather in August will attract more people to beaches and potentially increase the number of drownings.

The Chicago Park District said the Oak Street Beach is a spot that’s supposed to have a beach safety ambassador, but on Sunday, that ambassador’s shift did not start until 11 a.m. CBS 2 also asked the park district for more information on how residents can be better notified of hazardous conditions.

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