LAKESIDE — Deanna Marie Henle was enjoying an evening with family at Warren Dunes State Park on Aug. 1 when she saw a woman running on the beach with a toddler in her arms and heard a man yell “Does anyone know CPR?”
Her brother, a retired firefighter, along with a cousin, rushed over to help.
“They aren’t really talking about it, and I don’t want to ask,” Henle, of Plano, Ill., said in a phone interview. “I just know they weren’t able to resuscitate him at that time. He had no pulse.”
Bystanders continued CPR on the 4-year-old boy until emergency crews arrived. The boy, identified as Matthew Ramirez of Palatine, Ill., by the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, was rushed to Lakeland Medical Center, St. Joseph, then flown to Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo. Police later reported that he had passed away at approximately 12:09 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 5.
Berrien County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Robert Boyce stated in an Aug. 4 news release that Matthew was at the State Park with several family members on Aug. 1 and had been among several children who were playing in the water.
It appears that some family members believed the child had left the water and returned to the beach area with other family members, Boyce said. He added that the boy had remained in the water unbeknownst to family members.
“The Berrien County Sheriff’s Office would like to remind all individuals to constantly watch over their children when they are playing in a body of water, as many different factors, such as swimming skill levels and rip currents, are contributing factors in tragic incidents such as this,” Boyce stated.
Henle said the experience was traumatic for everyone, especially her 11-year-old daughter, who keeps asking about the boy. Henle’s younger children, ages 4 and 9, also were there.
“I immediately told them this is why we need to be safe around water. Regarding the little boy, I told my kids, ‘God has His arms around him. All we can do is pray.’ I held them and hugged them,” Henle said.
She said bystanders also tried to comfort the boy’s sister, who according to Henle, said she was supposed to be watching her little brother.
“I heard a lot of people passing judgment, and I tried to stop that,” she said.
Megan Dodson is a meteorologist in the North Webster, Ind., National Weather Service office. She was at the beach taking pictures Tuesday evening. In one picture taken at 7:22 p.m., a small boy is playing near the water. At 7:37 p.m., Dodson carried the same child out of the water.
“It all happened so fast. I was taking pictures when this boy who looked to be around 10 told his family he’d seen something floating in the water. He borrowed a boogie board and was trying to see if it was a log. Then he yelled ‘It’s a boy!’ His grandmother waded out there. She reached for him. He was face down. She grabbed him and handed him to me, and I ran him up to the beach,” Dodson said.
Dave Benjamin, cofounder and executive director of Public Relations and Project Management for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said many people do not know what drowning looks like, especially in young children.
“Many people don’t understand that in a non-swimmer, especially a young child, there is no waving and splashing. If a non-swimmer steps in over their head, they likely just go right under and don’t re-surface,” Benjamin said. “There are the true signs of drowning versus the Hollywood version, where it’s portrayed as a long, traumatic event that is very visible with lots of waving, yelling and splashing.”
Benjamin said Aug. 1 was a “green flag day” at the beach, with no wave activity, and the boy likely just slipped quietly under water.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which provides water safety presentations, teaches “hands-on, touch supervision.”
“That means that for all young, non-swimmers, you’re right there by their side at all times, even if the water is calm and shallow. This is especially important if you’re unfamiliar with the beach,” Benjamin said. “Sandbars are constantly changing with storms, and there’s drop-offs. It’s not like a pool where there’s consistent water depth.”
Bob Pratt, co-founder and executive director of education for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said lake levels are high this year, leaving not much area for young children to play in shallow water.
“When you get just four or five feet out, the water is up to the waist for most adults. That could have contributed (to the near drowning),” he said.
Benjamin said people assume water safety is common sense, and in some cases, it’s not.
“Many people don’t know what drowning looks like, and people don’t understand that drowning is so time critical. If you don’t know what drowning looks like, you’re going to miss it,” he said.
Benjamin said that on average, after about three minutes of submersion underwater, the heart stops. At around four minutes, irreversible brain damage begins, and after about 10 minutes, there is about a 14 percent survival rate, and that usually comes with long-term brain injury or a lifelong disability.
He said that’s where, in his opinion, lifeguards are critical. Warren Dunes State Park does not employ lifeguards, he said.
“We’re a huge advocate that lifeguards are first responders and just as important as police and firefighters.
“In my opinion, if you have a parking lot and you’re charging admission, there should be lifeguards watching the water until the park closes,” Benjamin said. “One of the biggest objections to having lifeguards, is that there’s no funding. But if Pure Michigan can spend over $30 million a year to bring people to water, which has billions of dollars in return through tourism, there’s money out there.”
He said that according to the World Health Organization, drowning continues to be a neglected public health issue.
“This isn’t just Michigan. Every state has a tourism budget to bring people to water. In our opinion, drowning should be treated like a public health issue,” he said.