For the Spanish version of this article, click here.
On July 6, 13-year-old Darihanne Torres died after being caught in a rip current in Lake Michigan at Loyola Beach. The loss of Darihanne forced her family to adjust to life without her while community members began pushing for improved water safety.
Darihanne’s family and members of Jordan Community School in Rogers Park, where she would have entered eighth grade this fall, remember her as always smiling.
“She was a happy one,” Darihanne’s mother, Yesenia Torres, said through a translator. “She was the happiness of the house.”
Yesenia said she often finds herself wondering if Darihanne is sleeping or if she’s hungry, even months after the loss. Yesenia has three other children, 18-year-old Stephanie, 10-year-old Alexis and 6-year-old Eidelin. She said they are grieving but doing well.
“They’re calm, they don’t cry a lot, but they remember her,” Yesenia said. “They say they have dreamed about her.”
Yesenia said she would often find Darihanne dancing to music through her stereo, which she almost always carried around with her. Ozuna was one of her favorite reggaeton singers, Yesenia said.
Gilberto Piedrahita, the principal at Jordan, said she loved sports, specifically soccer. Darihanne was one of the only females on Jordan’s soccer team, he said.
Piedrahita said he’s seen the community unite in support of Darihanne’s family, whether or not they personally knew Darihanne. Three Jordan students were with Darihanne the day she died. One student was holding her hand and trying to pull her out of the water, Piedrahita said.
A memorial July 9 at Loyola Beach drew a crowd of around 200 people who carried signs and white balloons in honor of Darihanne.
“It was beautiful that night while still feeling sad, I was happy to see so many people from the community — people Darihanne didn’t even know,” Piedrahita said.
He said the ability to come together is the “centerpiece” of the Jordan community, and he expects it will make the bond stronger, despite the tragedy.
Yesenia said she’s experienced community members helping her at school and on the street. A GoFundMe page was started for Darihanne’s funeral expenses. The funds from that, along with donations from the Jordan community, helped cover the Torres family’s funeral expenses, according to Piedrahita.
Piedrahita said Darihanne was a student at Jordan since she was in preschool and he’s come to know her family well. He explained Jordan students’ diverse racial and economic backgrounds help them come together.
“They know what being treated differently looks and feels like and they have a stronger sense of friendship, a stronger sense of dependency because they have the same challenges,” Piedrahita said.
Piedrahita said while this diversity is a unifying force, beaches need to be better equipped to accommodate the community. He said many signs on Chicago beaches are faded or placed poorly so they aren’t easily visible.
He also noted the signs on Rogers Park beaches are generally only in English despite many languages being spoken within the neighborhood.
Piedrahita said he’s considered putting on his own workshop about water safety at Jordan where he would mention Darihanne’s memory. As the school year begins, Piedrahita said the staff is prepared to support students if they need it, with a social worker and counselor prepared. Darihanne’s siblings and her eighth grade class will be provided extra support.
Halle Quezada, a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, was on the beach on the evening of the incident. She said there were procedural issues when handling the emergency, such as a lack of water-trained emergency personnel, unavailability of floatation devices and civilians jumping into the dangerous waters in an attempt to save Darihanne.
Because of these issues, Quezada and other activists started Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety (CAWS), a movement to educate Chicagoans on beach safety.
Quezada and other members of CAWS created a petition on change.org calling on Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to fund lakefront safety and rescue efforts. As of September 4, the petition had 2,616 signatures.
The petition includes a push to give first responders the resources needed for proper water rescue, as well as a desire for more informative water safety signage on beaches and access to floatation devices.
After the petition was released, Chicagoans wanted to get involved with the movement, Quezada said, resulting in a three-hour community presentation in July on water safety and a Facebook page allowing for public postings from people interested in the cause.
Quezada said she reached out to Joe Moore, Alderman of the 49th Ward, before publishing the petition. She said one of Moore’s staffers emailed CAWS several times asking for a copy of the petition, but delayed discussing the issue directly.
She said members of CAWS were able to get ahold of the alderman to discuss safety after the petition had gained a couple thousand signatures.
When they met, Quezada said Moore’s staff had a different kind of rhetoric on the issue. She said their attitude was that no matter how many safety measures were put in place, someone could still drown.
“For me that’s just not how public safety works, and that was frustrating for me to explain to my lakefront alderman,” Quezada said.
Moore co-sponsored a safety demonstration at Loyola Beach in August with the Chicago Fire Department’s Air Sea Rescue Unit and the Chicago Park District.
Moore didn’t respond to multiple interview requests from The Phoenix.
The photo for this article has been updated.