WATCH NOW: Drowning death in Lake Michigan highlights need for safety training, expert says | Lake County News

GARY – The recent Lake Michigan drowning at Porter Beach should serve as a deadly reminder to beachgoers that powerful riptide waves can engulf any swimmer if not properly prepared.

In 2022, there have been 20 drowning deaths in Lake Michigan, with the most recent incident occurring at Porter Beach on Monday morning. Thomas Kenning, 38, drowned after getting into the water to rescue a teenager who was struggling to stay afloat.

Dave Benjamin, co-founder and executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said if Kenning took anything floating with him when he entered the water, he may have survived.

“No matter how good or strong you are as a swimmer, you can have a drowning incident,” he said Monday night at Wells Street Beach in the Miller section of Gary. “It’s not common sense to know that panic is the first stage of drowning, or that an active drowning victim can overwhelm in the first minute.”

Since 2010, there have been 503 drowning deaths in Lake Michigan, accounting for nearly half of all drowning deaths in the Great Lakes, Benjamin said. Drowning incidents often occur because people are unaware of the active signs of drowning and the preventive measures to take.

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“We don’t play into fire and always know fire strategy,” he said. “Everyone plays in the water and few people know the strategy of drowning.”

Benjamin said that after immersion, the heart would begin to stop after three minutes, followed by the onset of irreversible brain damage after four minutes. He said there was only a 14 per cent chance a person would survive if rescued after 10 minutes of immersion.

The GLSRP promotes the “flip, float and follow” method of surviving a drowning incident. Start by rolling over onto your back, floating to control your breathing, and calming down to conserve energy.

Astacia Decheske, from Hebron, visits the beaches of Lake Michigan every summer. Decheske said there was a drowning almost every time she came to the beach.

“Once I was reading and looked up when I noticed everyone in the water was gone,” she said as she sat in a lawn chair next to her husband, Scott. “There were helicopters and boats everywhere. It was very scary and very sad.

Hammond resident Michelle Castillo brings her three sons to Wells Street Beach once or twice a summer. Castillo said she restricts how far she lets her children go in the water because of the high waves.

“These waves can be dangerous, they can drag them along,” she said as her three children played with a ball in the sand. “They should have a lifeguard here, or put restrictions on younger kids that parents have to be with them instead of sitting in a chair.”

Benjamin said a small child with no ability to swim can immediately submerge without having the opportunity to show signs of panic.

Someone with limited swimming ability who is in the water above their head may struggle for 15-20 seconds before final submergence. He said even adults with Olympic-grade swimming abilities can submerge in a minute once panic and exhaustion set in.

On Monday night, his organization held a surf lifesaving clinic at Wells Street Beach, instructing a dozen attendees to be aware of local beach safety posts that include a life jacket and life ring. (For more information on water safety education, visit

If a person appears to be in distress in the water, always make sure the rescuer uses the life jacket for themselves and the life ring for the victim, Benjamin said. It is also important to notify a lifeguard on duty.

Swimmers should also be aware that buoys are generally placed for boats, not swimmers. Although the buoys are aligned, there may be different sandbar formations around them, causing one buoy to be in a shallower area than another.

“We just want everyone’s day of family fun at the beach not to turn into a horrible tragedy that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives,” Benjamin said.

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