What started as fun ended tragically late Thursday afternoon when a local teen jumped off the north pier of Kenosha Harbor, was overpowered by Lake Michigan currents and disappeared below the surface.
Multiple agencies responded to the 5 p.m. 911 call.
Rescue efforts involved the Kenosha Fire Department, the Kenosha County Department Dive Team, Pleasant Prairie, Somers, Paris and Bristol fire departments, and a U.S. Coast Guard boat and helicopter.
After an hour and a half, the concerted search became a recovery effort attempting to find the presumed drowning victim’s body. Those attempts were called off about 8:20 p.m. Thursday and were set to resume with first light this morning.
The Scout Leader Rescue boat repeatedly swept the east end of the harbor with sonar equipment for more than two hours searching for the victim, but to no avail. Searchlights from a hovering Coast Guard helicopter also failed in attempts to find the body.
According to a boy, who said he was a friend of the victim, they had gone to the end of the north pier together with another fellow Indian Trail High School and Academy student.
The boy declined to identify himself, but said it was his idea to take photos for the school yearbook as the victim and the third student, a girl, jumped in the water, despite whitecaps crashing into and over the north side of the pier.
“I had my camera, and we went to the end of the pier. We were going to jump into the calm side. I wanted to get him in midair. He jumped in the first time, but the photo didn’t take, and he wanted to do it again,” the boy said.
He said this time the girl said she would jump in with the victim. But the second time around, the victim apparently found himself in trouble trying to get back to the pier, the boy said. He said the girl tried to help their friend, but was unable to reach him.
A Kenosha Police Department supervisor and a Kenosha Fire Department lieutenant on scene said the girl was able to get out on her own.
The boy taking the photos said he wasn’t a strong swimmer, but entered the water — staying close to one of the bright yellow, pier-mounted steel ladders — and tried to aid his friend.
“I went in to try to get him, but he drifted away,” the boy said, his long pants still soaking wet.
Expert diver Dan Vaccaro, the divemaster for the county dive team at the scene, surveyed the waves crashing against the north side of the pier. He pointed out three simultaneous but different undertows visible from the surface action.
Vaccaro indicated waves moving in opposing directions.
“That’s what causes the undertow,” he said, counting three distinct areas of undercurrents. “You can see how the waves are going in two different directions and hitting each other. If that’s what you see on the surface, imagine what’s going on underneath.”
He said the victim first “popped up” about 20 feet from the pier after being pulled under the surface. Then, Vaccaro said, he reappeared again 20 feet further away. “Only this time he was face down,” Vaccaro said.
The victim again disappeared below the surface, but did not reappear during the protracted rescue and later recovery attempts.
He nodded toward a bright yellow sign at the west end of the pier, which people have to pass by as they enter onto the pier. It includes warnings and rules prohibiting swimming and diving.
“How dangerous it is, and people don’t realize it,” Vaccaro said. “The signs are there, and years ago, when I was a lifeguard here, we used to have to tell people, ‘You can’t do that.’ They think they’ll go in off the end of the pier and come back on the other side. No, the current will catch them.”
Just as the rescue attempts turned into recovery efforts, the victim’s mother arrived in the north pier parking lot, where friends and family told her what had happened.
Her grief buckled her knees as she clutched her stomach and cried out, weeping in disbelief, pain and misery.