SOUTH HAVEN — Like many lakeshore communities, South Haven uses a flag warning system to let swimmers know whether it is safe to swim in Lake Michigan.
But a South Haven woman doesn’t think that’s enough.
When Kameron Grieves Daugherty heard the news Saturday that a 13-year-old Ann Arbor boy drowned in the Big Lake near South Beach, she decided to take action.
She started an online petition to determine whether South Haven area residents want lifeguards to man North and South beaches, as they did more than a decade ago.
“Bringing lifeguards back to our public beaches is something that I’ve been very passionate about since moving back to the area with my family about 16 years ago,” she said. “The most recent loss of life along South Haven’s shore line was my catalyst for finally speaking up. I am a mother to four children, including a 13-year-old. I cannot fathom what the family of this drowning victim is going through right now. And, I could not in good conscience let another day pass without making an effort to improve our beach safety.”
Daugherty said in no way is she being critical of South Haven’s first responders.
“South Haven Area Emergency Services responded swiftly and, as always, were courageous and diligent in their efforts,” she said. “But, could we as a community be doing more to protect our swimmers and support our emergency service teams? Is it not our duty to take all possible measures to ensure our swimmers are safe and informed?”
Apparently, a lot of other people agree with Daugherty’s sentiments.
Within 24 hours of posting her petition, “Bring Back South Haven Lifeguards,” on Change.org she received 545 signatures, surpassing her goal of obtaining 500. She hopes the petition will prompt city officials to discuss the possibility of hiring lifeguards.
“This petition is not a call to rehash past decisions,” she said. “I am certain that our city officials did their due diligence and poured over a lot of data at that time before coming to the decision to end the (lifeguard) program. We simply want to open up the opportunity to once again explore taking our beach safety program to the gold standard level – one that again includes lifeguards.”
But whether city officials will revisit the issue of hiring lifeguards remains to be seen.
“At this point there is no discussion about restoring the part-time lifeguard program, but we’re certainly willing to listen to everyone’s thoughts and opinions,” City Manager Brian Dissette said.
Approximately 15 years ago, city officials joined a growing number of lakeshore communities in opting out of hiring lifeguards and by 2013 installed a color-coded water conditions warning flag system at North and South beaches. The flags, which are on 15-foot-high poles, are continually monitored and changed by South Haven Area Emergency Services staff, according to weather conditions.
“City council spent the better part of a year weighing pros and cons of using lifeguards or making more investments in providing more training and better equipment for first responders,” Dissette said. “We are absolutely committed to our first responders in providing the best equipment and training. Saturday’s event was a terrible tragedy. Unfortunately, what gets overlooked is all the things the responders did right.”
Two weeks ago, Dissette went on to say, first responders revived a man who had fallen off his boat into the Black River. Last week they helped two kayakers who had become physically distressed after their craft capsized near South Beach. Monday, first responders spent part of the afternoon locating a young boy who had gotten lost on the beach.
“Unfortunately, Saturday was not successful,” Dissette said.
Saturday’s tragic drowning unfolded at 12:28 p.m. when South Haven Police received a call that several people were struggling in the water near South Beach. First responders arrived to the scene within three minutes, according to a report from South Haven Area Emergency Services.
The National Weather Service forecast for the day began with a green flag advisory for all South Haven beaches. It was changed to yellow at 11:10 a.m. as wind and wave criteria changed.
Witnesses told the officers that one adult had been rescued by a paddleboarder but the boy was still in the water.
First responders from the police department and South Haven Area Emergency Services requested help from the U.S. Coast Guard Air Support, Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department dive team and SHEAS rescue boat.
The young boy was found 22 minutes later, on shore, 100 yards south of the South Pier. First responders initiated CPR immediately and continued during the transport to Bronson South Haven Hospital. Despite the rescue efforts, the boy died.
Witnesses reported the family had been swimming and began to drift further away from shore and became exhausted, not able to swim back to shore.
During Monday’s city council meeting Mayor Scott Smith extended his condolences to the boy’s family.
“That was a terrible tragedy,” he said, on behalf of the city council. “I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for the family.”
Smith went on to thank the first responders who tried to save the boy’s life.
“Officers and SHAES have an incredibly difficult job,” he said. “They continue to demonstrate courage and professionalism every day.”