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Calling All Heroes: Tragedy on the Lakefront

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By Galen Leonhardy

A 25-year-old Zion man drowned in Lake Michigan off Monroe Harbor Saturday after a stolen rowboat in which he was sitting began to take on water and sank, authorities said.

A man and a woman who couldn’t swim stole a rowboat from Monroe Harbor Saturday morning and were rowing it with the back end facing front, which caused water to flood the boat, said police Marine Unit Officer John Clifford.

“He was rowing the boat from the wrong direction and water kept on splashing in and it sank,” said Clifford.

Witnesses jogging in the area jumped in the water and attempted to rescue them because the victims couldn’t swim, said Clifford.

Police were notified at 7:55 a.m., and when they arrived the woman had been rescued but the man was still under water and had been for 10 minutes, Clifford said. —From the Chicago Tribune, July 19, 2003

The city hummed. Bright blue that morning, Lake Michigan stretched to the horizon. It was 7:30am. Hallie, nine years of curly red hair tied in a ponytail, held my right hand loosely as we walked the waterfront, the three of us trekking our way toward the Art Institute of Chicago, toward the mighty lion statues and their den of art. Sarah, twelve, at the edge of puberty, still felt comfortable enough to hold my hand. The girls had traveled fifteen-hundred miles to visit their father, an itinerant teacher of English living far from home, a scholar cast out of marriage and ripped from his place by economic forces.

In a small white rowboat, a young black couple laughed. The man, his back toward the flat end of the boat, was trying to get the oar pin into its holder. Sitting backwards in a boat all too small, he obviously did not know how to row. But both he and the woman were hefty—he with the bulk and cut of training, she simply carrying a lot of extra weight. She teased him about not being able to get the oar pin into its lock. Their hoots filled the air. A swell passed over the flat back of the small boat, a result of inept attempts to seat the oar and a good deal of rocking. She screamed when cold water tightened the skin of her feet.

I smiled, imagining that the two had made off with the boat for the sake of a romantic row. The boat’s aft, a thin white edge, was less than two inches above the water. Bluish-gray water seeped over that edge. I caught the couple’s attention and asked if they could swim. I remember hearing “yes” from the woman and muffled tones from the man that resembled “sorta.” I frankly replied, “Well, you better be able to swim ’cuz it looks like you’re gonna hafta.” The couple laughed some more. Relaxing, I laughed along with them. The girls and I resumed our walking and chatting.

In my memory’s ear the sound of water pouring into the boat mingles into the woman’s screaming and the young man’s deep and booming, even song-like bellow, and it also mingles into the sounds of the city, by then grown into the dull cacophony of downtown traffic. I looked back over my shoulder through that funny traveling of sound at where the boat had been, by then nearly sixty feet past, back to a place where there were only beautiful dark-skinned arms waving in the middle of a white froth.

It took seconds to sprint the distance between their struggle and our peace-filled stroll. In between was a tunneling of focus. The outer edges of reality, the edges of sound and sight and hearing faded to black. Everything vanished except the young couple, by then little more than an occasional bobbing of arms and hands and fingers. His hands sank to her shoulders, pressing her down under the crystalline water, the black shirt lifting and waving gracefully as she sank. As she was pushed under and began to sink deeper, he would let go in panic.

On the way to the edge of the pier, which was about four feet above the water and eight feet from the drowning couple, the idea crossed my mind that jumping in to rescue the two would be foolish. I had to plan my actions, which I did while taking off my shoes. Black Hush Puppies thudded on the ground—no untied laces and no time wasted. The couple flailed their arms. The idea dawned on me to use my jeans as a lifeline. As I unbuttoned and then ripped open my pants at the zipper, a moment of relief followed. I’d put on underwear, not a regular thing for me. My body slammed onto the cement.

The young man in the water let go his grip from the shoulders of the young woman. He began to drift. His fingers curled slightly, and she began to rise. His water-filled body slid further away. Frantic dog-paddling moved her head out of the water. Slipping back under the surface, she reemerged, slipped back, and then broke the surface again, her breathing a series of frantic gasps. He drifted another four or five inches away. The woman’s increasingly panicked fight with the water took her down once more.

As her head bobbed up again, I yelled for her to grab my pants, extending my body as far as it would go, hoping that the reach of my britches would span the chasm between her, my arm and death. The cuff hit the water within her reach. Her weight pulled at the jeans held in my clenched fist. My elbow was yanked forward, then my shoulder, and then the wave passed to my body. I started sliding. She was a powerful force. Spreading my legs apart and jamming my toes against the cement stopped my progression toward the water, allowing me to grab the waist of my jeans with my other hand. For the sake of human life, we pulled together.

She climbed up the leg of my pants as I pulled. Behind her, the young man continued to sink. Her frantic yanking stretched the connective material of my joints. I spoke calmly but with force, telling her to grab my arm above the wrist, but she attempted a handshake grip instead, which I refused to accept by twisting my hand toward her thumb—a move learned from my kung fu teacher when I was stationed at Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii. The second time she held her left arm straight up while clutching onto the pant leg with her right. I situated my hand on her wrist just beyond the bone. She let go of the pants, which I pulled behind me before grabbing her other wrist. At that point, I locked my grip, and she started into a fit of mourning and vomiting.

My reasoning shifted back toward the man in the water. His feet had lowered to a position more vertical than horizontal, no longer gently drifting away so much as sinking toward waving clumps of the olive-green weeds that extended from the bottom of the lake. Just below the weeds’ upper reach was a dense haze of silt and organic materials stirred up from the repetitive motions of currents. My focus fixed on the problem of what to do with only one of me. Sarah and Hallie later said people were right behind me. One woman “had her hand on her mouth,” Sarah said.

The woman I clutched started moaning. Looking down, I saw bright yellow bile flowing from her mouth. She screamed and slurred mostly incoherent information before saying, “Let me go to him. I want to die with him.” She struggled. My shoulders screamed down to my wrists. I noted the need for her to stop struggling so I might figure out how to rescue her friend. The words and tone penetrated. She relaxed long enough for me to refocus my attention on the man, his body descending quite rapidly.

His hands had moved to his side. When his head was perhaps two to two-and-a-half feet below the surface, five or six gleaming bubbles passed from his mouth and rose toward the surface….

And still I watched, thinking systematically about options. Within seconds, the top of his head descended to about five feet below the surface. And that’s when it happened. He came to life in one perfect stroke, a stroke that pulled him toward the surface. And then there were three more strokes, all powerful, all glorious, all pulling him toward the surface. The fingertips of his right hand cupped to pull him up. He had learned to swim. Those perfect strokes pulled his right hand from about five feet to approximately five inches below the surface of the water. Then he quit swimming, stalled in his upward movement, and started falling again.

The woman, who had awkwardly twisted her head to see, screamed and struggled, begging for someone to help him and for me to let her go so she could die with him. As her struggles became more aggressive, I let go of her right arm and clenched her left forearm more tightly with both hands. My arms burned with the need to let her go, but I clenched my jaw against that desire. Despite the slime and sweat that caused my grip to slip and slip again, I held her. And there we hung together for another three or four minutes, some six or seven minutes after the sinking of the boat. Her kicking and screaming and crying continued, but my grip was strong enough for me to hold tight and to take another glance. Only his head remained above the fog of lake silt.

That was the last time I saw him. The woman in my hands became ferocious. Like an old hunter, I marked him in relation to clumps of waving leaves. The muscles of my arms, especially my right arm, felt gorged with blood. She kept slipping. Holding on was quickly becoming more of a wish than reality. I screamed like a weightlifter, and then switched my grip again. Close to the end of my strength, the thought crossed my mind that if all else failed, I could get my fingers into her hair.

I likely would have grabbed her by the hair had I not noticed the dangling leg of my pants. The leg of the jeans was easy enough to wrap around her wrist, and then I grabbed onto that with both hands. The trick worked. She stopped slipping, and I was able to switch my left hand back to her right arm. She stopped struggling as hard, and I gazed down into her eyes. She stared with eyes off-centered, drunkenly looking up and past me.

It must have been another four or five minutes before the roaring in my ears and mind cleared enough that I could hear again. The voice of a man behind me talking to and sometimes yelling at a 911 operator filtered into auditory focus. I started asking people I heard talking to jump in for the young man who was by then out of sight. Time after time, I asked, even yelled, but none of the six or seven people I could see when I turned my head would move toward me, let alone jump into the water.

The woman started trying to climb up the flat cement sides of the pier, a movement that dragged my body across the cement. She had grabbed hold of my arms in the process. I simply let go of her right arm with my left hand and gripped her other arm again and asked her to please stop—I didn’t have the strength to hold on if she kept trying to climb. Behind me, the man on the phone yelled at the operator.

The fire in my arms overwhelmed all other feelings. Adrenaline surged. I kept requesting for someone from the mass of people behind me to jump in and save the man who had been under water by then for ten minutes. A boat floated by. It was a large private cruiser, a cruiser worth more than my college education, one worth at least twice my annual salary. I reasoned, pleaded, begged and eventually even commanded the people on the boat to jump in and pull the man out of the water. I used all the rhetorical skills available to me: Corax, Gorgious, Socrates, Isocrates, Plato, Aristotle. I failed them all. There were at least four people on the boat staring at me and the woman, but not one even so much as touched the water. Nothing I said moved them to save a life. The pilot of the boat simply avoided passing directly over the spot where the man had disappeared.

Soon after, a woman who had been standing on the pier jumped into the lake. She ducked her head under the water once, then hit the surface twice, and then screamed. And there was a portly little man with big glasses who was strapped into a gray life vest. He swam to me and started pulling on the woman I held. At first I spoke with a calm voice, asking him to stop pulling because she couldn’t swim. But he continued. I yelled at the chubby man. He stopped his pulling.

Behind me, somebody from the pier came forward and passed a life jacket down to the little man already in the life vest. But rather than put the vest on the woman, he used it to float on while he grabbed a thin nylon rope that had been hanging about seven feet away. He then wrapped the cord around the woman’s stomach, pulling on her again and again until I commanded, “Put the other fucking life vest on her!” The man with the glasses did so while several people standing behind scolded me for not being nice. (“Hey, man, there’s no need to yell. We all need to get along if we’re going to help her.”) Not long after that, another man lay down beside me and helped to hold onto the young woman. While all that went on, there was the constant voice of the man yelling at the 911 operator and the screaming, yelling and the frustrated slapping at the water produced by the woman who had jumped into the lake.

Tired and weak, all I could do was hold onto the woman’s right arm with both hands. The pant leg helped me keep my grip. And then the man next to me started to pull her up. As he pulled, so did I. She did not come up easily, and the thought passed that her strained arm bones might snap as we pulled. Then there were three people pulling. And then she was up. My impulse was to jump in and find the man. But reason dictated that after fifteen minutes underwater, he was likely dead. I surrendered.

Putting on my pants, my panicked gaze went up and down the trail in search of the girls. The police had handcuffed the woman. She sat on the grass weeping, hands behind her. Sarah’s voice called to me. Hallie called too. They were about thirty feet away, both standing under a small tree on the grassy area between the pier and the bike trail. Good girls, they had found a safe place to wait. Both started the dash toward me. I ran toward them. It didn’t take long for us to close the gap. I collapsed to my knees, and they supported me in their arms as I recovered. By then, nearly fifteen uniformed men and women, three police cars, four police bicycles and a fire truck were at the scene. The three of us stood some distance from the commotion. They did find him. But after all the fire engines and bicycle police and ladders and divers and TV cameras, after all that, they could not bring him back from the deep below.

One Response to “Calling All Heroes: Tragedy on the Lakefront”

  1. Robin Boucher Says:

    Having grown up spending weekends at my father’s apartment on Lake Shore Drive, I have a healthy understanding for Lake Michigan’s power, and the aloofness that occurs in dense populations. What a commentary on our “spectator culture.” I cannot believe, but am not surprised by the apathy of the surrounding onlookers. You set an incredilbe example to your children to be participants in life, whether good or bad, to participate in humanity, and to realize that life is happening right now in 3-D.

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