With conditions worsening on Lake Michigan, the Kenosha Fire Department ended the search for a teen presumed drowned in Kenosha Harbor.
The Kenosha Fire Department, which is leading the search efforts, said it had searched the harbor channel and areas near the pier multiple times without success, and said conditions, including strong currents and 6-foot waves, were putting search crews at risk. The search was called off at about 4 p.m.
“We’ve used literally everything at our disposal today — firefighters, drones, a helicopter, sonar — and have been unable to locate the victim at this point,” said Battalion Chief Matthew Haerter.
The 17-year-old boy was with friends when he jumped off the north pier at the harbor and was overcome by strong currents Thursday. Witnesses said the boy, a student at Indian Trail High School and Academy, was pulled under the water and surfaced twice, each time about 20 yards further away, before disappearing.
The teen’s name has not yet been released.
“We had people here within a minute of the last time he was seen,” said Ryan McNeely, division chief of training and safety for the Kenosha Fire Department. Multiple agencies using boats with sonar, divers and helicopters were unable to find the teen Thursday, and the search was called off when darkness set in.
McNeely said the recovery effort began again Friday morning. But he said winds and waves continued to build through the day, making it difficult for the sonar to capture images and dangerous to send divers into the water.
The teen’s presumed drowning is the fourth drowning death this summer. Just last week, a 58-year-old Kenosha woman drowned in the harbor, believed to have fallen into the water after leaving the Yacht Club on Simmons Island.
“We’ve lost four people this year, at least one off the pier,” KFD Fire Chief Chuck Leipzig said, saying it was frustrating to see people ignore warning signs in dangerous areas along the shore. The north pier has warning signs about hazardous conditions for swimmers.
McNeely said about a dozen agencies from Wisconsin and northern Illinois had crews on the scene, including search boats from Illinois that have more sophisticated sonar equipment to search the lake bottom.
But conditions are difficult. The National Weather Service had issued a small craft warning and beach hazard warning for the area Wednesday that will continue through the weekend.
Paul Collar, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Sullivan office, said strong onshore wind from the northeast is creating large waves that interact with the shoreline and man-made objects like piers and jetties to create dangerous conditions for swimmers. “Those are the conditions that lead to the formation of these nasty rip currents,” he said.
McNeely said divers in the water Thursday were fighting strong currents and zero visibility on the lake bottom. “They had to search by feel,” he said. Waves were up to 5 feet in the lake.
On Friday, crews were using sonar to search the channel bottom, planning to send divers down if they were able to mark any object that might be a body. There were two boats searching the harbor channel, while a Flight for Life helicopter searched the lake surface along the shore. By Friday afternoon, McNeely said, sonar had not picked up any solid information, and divers had not yet been sent into the water.
Haerter said the department was confident that they had searched all of the areas that were accessible multiple times. “After speaking with multiple agencies including the Coast Guard, law enforcement and our responding partners from other departments, we made the decision to terminate the recovery effort until we get additional information,” he said.
Haerter urged people to be careful near the lakefront and to stay out of the water, especially while the beach hazard warning is in effect this weekend.
“We need to say this in the strongest way: We are pleading with the public to be cautious,” he said. “We saw people with small children out there (on the pier) allowing their children to run unguarded. We can’t protect people from that.”
Dave Benjamin, spokesman for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said there have been 93 drowning deaths in the Great Lakes this summer. “On average, the Great Lakes will have more drownings than the East Coast and West Coast combined,” he said.
Benjamin said his organization urges water safety education, saying that most people don’t understand that wind and waves lead to dangerous rip currents, especially near piers.
The group also urges municipalities to have throw rings on piers and beaches. There are no life rings on the north pier.
“We’re not talking about rocket science here. Flotation is the key to survival in a drowning incident,” Benjamin said. “A throw ring and rope would probably be about 50 bucks. Is 50 bucks worth saving a life?”