SOUTH HAVEN — South Haven emergency responders have a message for beachgoers who want to venture out into the waves of Lake Michigan when red flag warnings are up.

Stay out of the water.

Police closed off a portion of South Beach on Friday after two people were rescued, averting what could have been two more drownings at the beach in less than a week.

The first incident occurred shortly after noon when the South Haven Police Department and South Haven Area Emergency Services were called to the crowded beach in response to a call of a distressed 21-year-old swimmer by the South Pier who was not able to make it back to shore.

“He was out a little too far. He was dealing in big waves and got exhausted,” said Ron Wise, fire chief for SHAES. “Bystanders tried to throw life rings to him, but he was out too far.”

With life vests on, Wise and three South Haven police officers took on the task of saving the Plainwell man. Wise jumped in the water with a life ring and rope. He swam out to the man, got a hold of him as several officers pulled Wise and the swimmer back to the pier.

The second call of a distressed swimmer happened less than an hour later when a woman tried to rescue her three children from the water. The children were able to get out of the water, but beachgoers nearby had to help the woman out. “She had become exhausted,” Wise said. First responders took the woman to Bronson South Haven for treatment.

Jackson resident Elizabeth Zwick said she was playing with her 3-year-old on the playground equipment at the beach when she saw a person in distress. Zwick said she went to her car and grabbed a life jacket. She swam out to the person in distress and got her to shore as emergency responders were arriving.

The woman who was rescued was suffering from exhaustion from fighting the waves and currents. “She had become exhausted,” Wise said. First responders took the woman to Bronson South Haven for treatment.

Strong currents

After the two rescues, police and SHAES cordoned off one large section of the beach next to the water as a warning to swimmers to stay out of the water. Police continued to keep up a strong presence at the beach throughout the afternoon.

“This is where the strongest currents are,” South Haven Police Chief Natalie Thompson said in reference to the area that was closed to swimmers. 

Despite getting the swimmers out of the water safely, Wise said he gets frustrated when swimmers ignore the weather condition flags that are prominently displayed at South and North Beaches.

SHAES changed the flag colors from yellow to red at 9 a.m., Friday. Red means stay out of the water, yellow means use caution, and green means swimming conditions are OK.

“I told (the swimmer from Plainwell) ‘we hope you have a better understanding of (the) red flags. You almost died,’” Wise said. “He was crying for help. He was just about to go under.”

Wise said he is a strong proponent of the beach flags.

“The success stories people don’t see are the people who do pay attention to the flags and stay out of the water,” he said.

Thompson added: “It’s about respecting the water. I think the flags keep people out of the water, but as you can there’s still people in it,” she said.

A year ago, after SHAES and the police responded to a series of water rescues in which swimmers went into the water when they weren’t supposed to, South Haven City Council passed an ordinance allowing SHAES to bill people up to $500 for expenses the two departments incur in rescuing them.

The Plainwell man who had to be rescued Friday by police and fire units will get a $500 bill, Wise said.