South Beach crowd

Warm, humid temperatures brought many swimmers and beachgoers to South Beach, Sunday, Aug. 7. On Monday, Aug. 8, warm, humid temperatures continued but waves were becoming more choppy. Under yellow flag conditions, two young adults from the Detroit area lost their lives after drowning in Lake Michigan. Bystanders pulled the two swimmers from the water, and first responders administered life-saving measures, but the two swimmers later died at South Haven Bronson Hospital.

Two more swimmers have lost their lives this summer off the beaches of South Haven.

The latest incident occurred Monday, Aug. 8, when two swimmers were pulled from the lake and rushed to the hospital where they later died.

The drowning victims have been identified as 22-year-old Kory Ernster from Novi, and 19-year-old Emily MacDonald from Columbus, Mich., according to a news release issued by South Haven Police Chief Natalie Thompson.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with both families,” Thompson stated in the news release. “Out of respect to the family, and to confirm notification, names of the victims will be released at a later date.”

The incident occurred at about 12:30 p.m. off of South Beach, according to a news release issued by Brandon Hinz, executive director of South Haven Area Emergency Services.

First responders were dispatched for two possible drownings. The two swimmers were pulled from the water by bystanders prior to the arrival of police and ambulance crews. Upon arrival, first responders from SHAES began administering lifesaving measures to the two swimmers.

Yellow flags were flying at the time of the incident on South Beach in the vicinity of where the swimmers were in the water. Yellow flags warn swimmers to use caution when entering the water.

The National Weather Service also had issued a warning of dangerous waves and currents along the shoreline from Manistee south to St. Joseph through Tuesday morning. South Haven and St. Joseph were listed with waves of 2-4 feet, indicating yellow flag conditions.

Last week’s drowning incident at South Beach follows the drownings in July of a 33-year-old man from Ohio and 7-year-old child from Texas, who were vacationing with other family members at a home near North Beach. Several children entered the water off of North Beach and were swept away by strong currents.

Two adults entered the water to help the children. Two were rescued; however, the 7-year-old child did not make it. The Texas man also succumbed to the strong currents.

On April 30, the first drowning of 2022 in South Haven occurred when a 25-year-old man from Indiana fell over a deck railing overlooking the Black River, landed on a deck below, hit his head and then drowned.

Despite stepped up safety efforts, drownings still occur

The drownings this year come despite efforts by city officials, police and South Haven Area Emergency Services to step up efforts to educate people about the dangerous conditions Lake Michigan can pose for swimmers.

Earlier this year, the city council passed an ordinance to institute fines up to $1,000 for people who refuse to get out of Lake Michigan at North and South beaches during red flag warning days. The city council also voted to install gates to close the the North and South piers during inclement weather conditions and to fine people who don’t obey the gates or who jump or dive into the water from the piers. In addition, SHAES has instituted a text alert system to keep swimmers abreast of Lake Michigan water conditions, while Bronson Safe Kids Coalition, along with several non-profits and businesses has provided literature to hotels and other establishments frequented by vacationers. The Safe Kids Coalition has also installed life vest loaner kiosks at North and South beaches that swimmers can use free-of-charge and then return to the kiosk when they are finished swimming.

South Haven City Manager Kate Hosier said city officials mourn the loss of the victims.

“We join our community in mourning those who have lost their lives in Lake Michigan this summer. Our hearts especially go out to the loved ones left behind,” she said. “We encourage all those planning to spend time on our beaches to do three things: First, respect the power of Lake Michigan where conditions can change in a matter of minutes. Second, understand the red-yellow-green flag system and doublecheck conditions before getting in the water. Third, understand your limitations as a swimmer and take advantage of the life-saving devices that are free and available for your safety.”

Hosier went on to say that city staff last year went through a process of re-examining water safety measures that could be undertaken to protect swimmers, especially in light of the high water levels that remain in Lake Michigan following the record-breaking high-level mark that occurred in 2018.

“We went through an exhaustive discussion with our community in 2021 about best practices when it comes to water safety and our Lake Michigan beaches,” she said. “We have invested significantly in beach safety through a series of robust measures that include:

Expanded presence of South Haven Area Emergency Services, or SHAES, on all beaches

More signage, including rip current warnings, on all beaches

Regular monitoring and adjusting of the red-green-yellow flag system

Loaner life jackets from Safe Kids Greater South Haven.

Call boxes, life rings and throw bags.

Expanded water rescue training for the South Haven Police Department and SHAES.

The city has been concerned about beach and water safety even prior to 2021. In 2018, the city council established a committee to examine ways to improve water safety at the beaches. The group looked at whether to establish a lifeguard system, however, it opted not to do so after a survey conducted by the city showed that although residents favored lifeguards they had mixed feelings about paying for the cost of a lifeguard program.

The survey, conducted by Western Michigan University’s Kercher Center for Social Research concluded that city residents had “mixed opinions.” A slight majority of respondents – 44 percent – supported a lifeguard program, however 27 percent did not, while 19 percent remained neutral.