Halle Quezada never gave much thought to the dangers of water.
“We’re around water all the time. We usually don’t drown,” said the West Ridge mother of two. “It’s not like fire – you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.”
But Quezada’s perception of water safety changed after a fateful night last summer. She and her family witnessed the immediate aftermath of a teenage girl submerging in a structural current at Loyola Beach. She and her husband helped pull one of two girls out of the water
The other girl, 13-year-old Darihanne Torres, drowned after 7 p.m. on July 6, 2018 – roughly 20 minutes after lifeguards were off duty.
“Being on the beach that night was so powerless and helpless. Everyone there wanted to do something,” she said. “In hindsight, when you just replay the moments over and over, it was so preventable and so needless.”
Quezada said putting in preventative safety measures like warning signs about structural currents and a numbering location system, making flotation devices easily accessible and keeping lifeguards on the beach for longer periods of time might have helped saved Torres’s life.
“I do believe for a city this size that invests so much in recreation and tourism, we’re doing a disservice, and even an inequitable service, to only have lifeguards from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., so people who work second shift can’t enjoy the public water safely,” she said.
The tragedy led Quezada to start a petition to address what she said she saw as problem areas at the beach. The petition received more than 2,600 signatures and fielded several responses from the community, she said.
As a result, she co-founded the Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety, a community group that allows those concerned about water safety and drowning to share resources.
But through it all, Quezada said she wondered why she didn’t know about the danger of structural currents – waves that powered by high winds that pile up against structures in the water and can carry a swimmer out further away from the shoreline.
“Why don’t we know that it’s dangerous to swim near structures, that these currents are deadly? It’s not common sense, and we’re not educating [our kids],” she said.
Education about waterfront safety is one of four areas the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project aims to address, said Dave Benjamin, GLSRP’s co-founder and executive director.
The nonprofit has given more than 820 “Great Lakes Water Safety” classes and presentations since June 2011, and Benjamin has traveled to seven of the eight Great Lakes states for those presentations.
“What we advocate for is flip, float and follow,” said Benjamin, calling it the “stop, drop and roll” of drowning.
“Flip over on your back and you float, float to keep your head over water, float to keep yourself calm from the fear and panic of drowning, float to conserve your energy, and then follow a safe path out of the water,” he said.
On top of that, Benjamin said he hopes the public understands the difference between knowing how to swim and knowing how to survive, but with stigma attached to drowning, many swimmers might not think twice about learning how to survive a drowning.
“The stigma gives them the false sense of security, that drowning wouldn’t happen to me because the summation is – drowning only happens to stupid people,” he said. “When we started working with family and friends of drowning victims, we found that a lot of these drowning victims were brilliant. They were straight A students. They knew how to swim. They just didn’t know what to do in a rip current. They didn’t know what to do if they were struggling in water over their head.”
GLSRP also tracks reported drownings in the Great Lakes. Since 2010, there have been more than 750.
Benjamin says on average, almost half of all Great Lakes drownings happen in Lake Michigan, specifically in the south end of the lake, because of population density, access to water and Chicago being a tourists destination.
Both Benjamin and Quezada said Chicago’s beaches fair pretty well, but they’re not perfect.
The two are members of the City of Chicago’s Lakefront Safety Task Force, which evaluated the city’s beaches and put out recommendations for change in a report to City Council last month.
Some of those policy recommendations include expanding lifeguard capacity, installing a numbering location system at all beaches and recommending that the Chicago Park District conduct annual water safety demonstrations and outreach events.
Members with the Chicago Park District are also a part of the task force and see what needs changing on Chicago’s beaches, but Adam Bueling, who manages beaches and pools for the district, said the department’s budget puts a strain on what it can do.
“We continue to deal with financial challenges in the Chicago Park District, and so now that the recommendations are out there we’re taking a look at those and we’re submitting those requests for additional financing to try and make those things happen,” he said.
But the Chicago Park District has begun implementing some changes this season, like adding new signage that warns beachgoers to swim only when lifeguards are on duty, putting in flag poles at all swimming beaches to display red flags when swimming is not permitted, and rolling out a series of information sessions to teach the public about water safety.
And, although not new this season, beachgoers can also check for water quality testing results and beach advisories by visiting the park district’s website or calling the hotline at 312-74-BEACH (2-3224).
The Lakefront Water Safety Task Force submitted its report City Council April 10. The next steps include a hearing.
While Quezada waits for those recommendations to be considered, she said she’s focused on teaching her own kids about water safety.
“Most importantly, they’re in swim lessons,” she said. “We are also constantly reinforcing – whenever we see water, we’re reinforcing the message that you don’t go – we love water, but you don’t go in alone.”
Since July 2018, Quezada has dedicated her free time to spreading the word about the dangers of swimming in the lake and sharing what she experienced the night Darihanne Torres died.
“We’re essentially saying it was acceptable if we don’t make changes as a response, and that’s what really makes me more emotional than anything else because I’m not comfortable waiting to see who’s next,” she said.
Quezada advises those who wish to better address drowning to “engage in conversations about water safety” by “asking questions about safety precautions when kids go on field trips near the water, talk to lifeguards, ask about water before play dates.”
She also recommends checking the webpage for Parents Preventing Childhood Drowning.