MICHIGAN CITY – A man who spends his time educating people about the dangers of Lake Michigan was an eyewitness to a near tragedy in Lake Michigan, when a toddler on an inflatable toy drifted out into open water before being rescued by boaters.
It happened Monday afternoon at Michigan City's Washington Park, when "a toddler on an inflatable duck was carried out to open waters by a side-offshore wind," said Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
The boy eventually panicked and fell off the inflatable, but was rescued just in time by a boater who was in the area. Benjamin said the incident could have easily turned into a major tragedy.
"Without the boater, this could have had a tragic ending as the toddler and three would-be rescuers could have drowned," he said.
Benjamin said he took his family to Washington Park beach on Monday like hundreds of other people.
"I had walked down to the pier with my son to check out the sandbar and rip current formations," he said, noting that there are at least four "prominent rip current channels" between the lifeguard stands and the pier.
However, the culprit on Monday was not a rip current, but a longshore current, which is caused by southerly winds blowing from shore over the water.
"We noticed a woman in waist- to chest-deep water with two young children on an inflatable duck," Benjamin said. "Both children were wearing cheap inflatable arm floaties."
When one child fell off the duck, the mother turned to grab him, Benjamin said.
"When she turned back to grab the duck, it had drifted away. It was drifting farther and faster than she could swim after it."
He said he started yelling and waving his arms to get the attention of a nearby boat as the child "drifted faster and farther down the beach and out to open water.
"I think initially that the boater was a little confused and was assessing the situation to figure out the emergency as a man on an inner-tube was attempting to paddle to the boy."
Benjamin and his son ran to the lifeguard tower, and he told his wife and daughter to keep an eye on the boy and the duck in the offshore wind. That's when his daughter started recording the incident on her phone.
He informed the lifeguards of the situation, then ran to his truck to get his stand up paddleboard and get into the water, he said.
"The man on the inner-tube was unsuccessful reaching the boy," Benjamin said. "And I think the boater was picking up additional 'would-be' rescuers who were also unsuccessfully reaching the boy. I think the boater also picked up the mom."
He started to paddle out on his SUP, and "I could see that the boy was panicking," he said.
"He fell off the duck and started bobbing in the water. He did still have the arm floaties on, but those can easily slip off. I yelled out for the boater to get to the boy now. He was picking a swimmer and the guy on the inner tub out of the water."
The boat sped to the boy, and a woman jumped out without a lifejacket, but came up short of reaching the duck, Benjamin said.
"The boat reached the boy, and another woman wearing a lifejacket jumped out of the boat and rescued the boy. The first woman who jumped out of the boat was able to swim to the boat and climb aboard."
Benjamin said not only the boy could have drowned, but some of the would-be rescuers.
And that would have added to a total of at least 17 drownings in Lake Michigan so far this year.
That number includes 17-year-old Rahem Mason, who went under while swimming in Washington Park on July 6. His body was found five days later along a beach near Union Pier, Michigan.
In the last few days there have been two additional drownings, including a 13-year-old boy from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who drowned while swimming in South Haven, Michigan, on Saturday; and a 59-year-old Chicago man who drowned after falling into the water at the Hammond Marina on Sunday.
The video of the Washington Park incident can be viewed at youtu.be/XYJfZee146E. For more information on the GLSRP, visit glsrp.org.