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Safety on the Lakes: Recent drownings in South Haven bring attention to lack of beach lifeguards

Drownings bring attention to lack of lifeguards
Drownings bring attention to lack of lifeguards 05:00

(CBS DETROIT) - "She was just this vibrant, full of energy girl," says Lisa MacDonald.

"I'm just heartbroken," says Stephen Ernster

It's a story heard far too often. A family on vacation, their loved one goes into the water, and never comes back.

"You just think this is just a family vacation," Ernster says.

Kory Ernster and Emily MacDonald had been dating for five years. Their relationship lasted through the run-up to college and a long-distance move for that first post-graduation job.

"I marveled at one of most beautiful moments I had at this visitation, was meeting Lisa's mom, and she was the sweetest lady," says Ernster.

"And she just would talk about how Korey and Emily would just, they were just like, you know, just like family. It was true, true love."

"If something was passionate to her, she went full force with it. It wasn't, you know, halfway. She just goes full force" says McDonald.

Trips to the beach were common for the pair.

On Aug. 8, Kory and Emily walked into the waves on lake Michigan for the last time. We don't know the specifics about how they drowned. But captured on the South Haven live camera, you see bystanders rushing into the waves, pulling Kory and Emily out.

This snap was posted approximately 15 minutes before the first 911 call.

Vacationers administered CPR until emergency crews arrived, but it was too late. This Snapchat is one of the final photos the couple would take together.

"My daughter, maybe if there was a lifeguard, could have gotten out there and saved both of them, got people out there to save both of them," says McDonald.

"I'm a former educator. You can't rely on everyone reading the signs and you know what to do if you're in that situation. So, I don't think that just having flags is enough"

Towns along the Great Lakes, along with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, use color flags to denote potential hazards in the water.


If a red flag is flying, you should never enter the water as dangerous currents or other hazards exist. In yellow conditions, there are hazards and entry is advised with extreme caution. On green flag days, no dangerous currents have been witnessed but no water is safe water, so you should stay aware of changing conditions.

"No water is safe water, whether you're at the Great Lakes, if you're in a river or a pool, that no water is safe water," says Kate Hosier

Kate Hosier is the city manager for South Haven and implements safety regulations decided on by the South Haven City Council. She says the colored flags work to alert swimmers of potential dangers.

"I would say that it's a little hard to do one size fits all, but there should be common messaging," Hosier says.

We found inconsistent messaging when it came to flag colors.

For example, on Aug. 16, South Haven had a green flag flying for safer conditions. But 30 miles north in Holland State Park a yellow flag was flying due to cold water temperatures that could lead to hypothermia. Same conditions in both locations, but different safety flags in the air.

On August 16th, South Haven and Holland had similar conditions for potentially hypothermic water temperatures but different flags flying.

"The flag system is a tool for lifeguards to use and not a replacement for lifeguards," says Dave Benjamin, co-founder and Executive Director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

"But the state of Michigan and many city beaches got rid of their lifeguards quite some time ago and they kept the flags. Assuming that the flags are going to be enough and the flags are not, the flags are inadequate."

He is an adamant supporter of bringing lifeguards back to Great Lakes beaches, especially those in vacation towns.

"These beach cities and the state of Michigan have a higher duty to protect its beachgoers because these beachgoers are coming from usually out of town or out of state or out of country," says Benjamin.

Benjamin says that while bystanders have stepped in to help with these recent drownings, lifeguards are the best answer. Making a difference where seconds matter.

"If they're actively drowning around three minutes of submersion, the heart will stop around four minutes of submersion. Irreversible brain damage begins around 10 minutes of submersion. If you're pulling the person out of the water, it's a body recovery" he says.


Both Benjamin and Hosier agree that education would help to save lives.

You can spot a rip current by a large break in the waves. Water is funneled outward and can pull a person away from shore. Fighting the current can quickly tire you out. To escape a rip you must swim to the side, parallel to the shoreline, and only swim toward shore once you are out of that funnel and back with the waves.

"The only way that something gets done is if the family members of drowning victims stand up and speak out. And that's a horrible, horrible way of stress to put on a person who's going through extreme grief right now. It's not fair at all. And unfortunately, that's the only way that this something will happen" says Dave Benjamin.

"If your newscast saves one person. Not that it's going to make up for what we've lost, but people need to know" Lisa tells us.

"I think it's a terrible case of money over lives," says Stephen.

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