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34 Drownings In Lake Michigan So Far This Year, Advocacy Group Says

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A total of 34 people have drowned in Lake Michigan this year – a figure that accounts for nearly half the drownings in all the Great Lakes, an advocacy group said Thursday.

Dave Benjamin of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project said that the latest figure includes a man who died after being pulled from the water at the 31st Street Beach Thursday afternoon.

Police said the 35-year-old man went into the water while standing on a pier amid high water levels and strong currents. A witness said the man and two children were walking on the pier when a wave washed over.

An 11-year-old girl ended up in the lake after being hit by the big wave, and the man went in after her, officials said.

A lifeguard was able to get the girl out of the water in about 30 seconds, but the man was under water for about two minutes. The man, now identified as Rene Padilla of south suburban Blue Island, was later pronounced dead at Mercy Hospital.

The drowning figure for Lake Michigan also included two SCUBA deaths, the GLSRP said.

The next greatest number of drownings this year were seen in Lake Erie with 18, followed by Lake Ontario and Lake Huron with eight each, and finally Lake Superior with three.

There have been 71 drownings in the Great Lakes to date in 2019 – a number greater than the total numbers for the years 2013, 2014, or 2015. There have been 811 drownings in the Great Lakes since 2010.

Experts last month pointed to higher lake levels and the relatively mild winter, making the summer's water temperature warmer and attracting more beach goers. Lake Michigan's beaches are also popular with tourists.

But the nature of Lake Michigan makes it particularly perilous.

The lake is 307 miles long, and 118 miles at its widest point. Winds create frequent waves – sometimes every 2 seconds, Halle Quezada of the Chicago Alliance for Water Safety explained to CBS 2's Jim Williams last month.

"So imagine you're struggling and you can't touch and you get knocked down by a wave. By the time you orient yourself to get your head up again, you can't see the shore – and another wave is coming in and knocking you down again," Quezada said. "That causes panic, and panic kills."

Panic kills even among good swimmers.

On Thursday, strong currents and dangerous waves made for a treacherous situation all along Chicago's lakefront.

CBS 2 Meteorologist Rob Ellis said winds along the lake were gusting at 15 to 25 mph as of 5 p.m. Thursday. Buoys were recording waves of between 3 and 5 feet.

Police advised everyone to use caution at the beach late Thursday.

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