Last week, Yana Bushneva was having breakfast at the Tobey Prinz Beach Park when she heard calls for help and saw a man struggling to stay afloat in the lake. Although she called 911 and tried to look for someone who could swim well enough to save him, she said the most important tool she and other bystanders needed to rescue the man wasn’t available: a life ring.
The man, 19-year-old Miguel Angel Cisneros Jr., died after drowning in Lake Michigan off the shore of Rogers Park Aug. 22, The Phoenix reported. Approximately three hours after the incident, two more people in distress were rescued, according to Maria Hadden, the 49th Ward Alderwoman.
Hadden said she’s been advocating for better beach safety devices, including life rings, to the Chicago Park District — which oversees all Chicago beaches — for years but to no avail.
The Alderwoman posted an update on her Instagram page Sept. 1, sharing she learned the park district is “reconsidering their position” on life rings.
The U.S. National Weather Service Chicago issued a warning hours before the incidents on Aug. 22, advising Chicagoans to refrain from swimming in the lake that day, The Phoenix reported.
Although the public was warned of dangerous water conditions, some bystanders said there was a lack of proper beach safety measures at Pratt Pier that could’ve prevented the man’s death if they were implemented.
“He was two meters away from the pier,” Bushneva said. “If we had something like a life ring, we could have thrown it to him and it would’ve helped him stay afloat. He was exhausted. He couldn’t stay up. 99% if there was a ring, he would’ve probably been saved.”
More than 20 people have drowned in Lake Michigan since the start of this year, according to The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a non-profit drowning prevention alliance.
As more people lose their lives to drownings in Chicago beaches, some concerned residents and leaders say enough is enough.
“We’re losing people every year in the lake and it’s preventable,” Laura Oliver, a Rogers Park resident of seven years, said.
Hadden — who said she’s done press and sent several letters to the park district and the mayor asking for drowning preventative measures — said several people have drowned near the pier within the past couple of years, but the Chicago Park District still decides against having flotation devices at Chicago beaches. She said she was told it was due to concerns over liability, maintenance and theft.
“It can take a while for first responders to arrive and it only takes moments for someone to drown,” Hadden said.
The Chicago Park District said in an email to the Phoenix it’s considering installing safety equipment to certain swim areas but didn’t provide details. The Chicago Park District also didn’t respond to criticism from residents and the alderwoman regarding the park district ignoring requests for more visible signs, life rings and numbered beaches.
Although the Chicago Park District discourages swimming with signs when lifeguards aren’t on duty and advises checking weather conditions before taking a dip in the lake, Hadden said their efforts aren’t enough. She said she doesn’t think they have a valid argument for not installing life rings.
“Some life rings, especially in our most dangerous areas, could make all the difference in the world and could save lives,” Hadden said.
Hadden said her office has been working with Halle Rasmussen, founder of the Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety — a group working towards making Chicago’s lakefront safer.
Over the years, Rasmussen said the Chicago Park District made many decisions that resulted in unsafer beaches, including cutting the number of hours of lifeguard presence by 30% and not numbering beaches for efficient tracking purposes. For that reason, she said she thinks drowning incidents have increased in Chicago.
“Absolutely not satisfied with beach safety in Chicago,” Rasmussen, who began advocating for safer beaches after witnessing a 13-year-old Rogers Park resident drown in 2018, said.
The City of Chicago Water Safety Task Force — a group of water safety experts, delegates and representatives from a multitude of public groups, including Chicago’s police and fire departments — meets quarterly to pursue safer Chicago beaches, according to Rasmussen. She said there’s been a consistent pattern where everyone initially agrees on what they need to implement, but eventually, the Chicago Park District fails to execute after their legal advisers intervene.
“They don’t want someone to have an accident using the rings and they have to litigate it,” Rasmussen said. “But I don’t think the city should operate to make attorneys’ jobs easier; our city should operate to make our residents safer.”
Instead of waiting for the Chicago Park District to install a life ring at Pratt Pier, Rogers Park resident Jim Ginderske — who is the owner of a construction company — said he installed a “coast guard-approved” life ring Aug. 27. However, the Chicago Park District removed it Aug. 30, according to Ginderske.
“I was really shocked and appalled when I realized they had not replaced it with another one,” Ginderske said.
The Chicago Park District said in an email to The Phoenix they removed the life ring because it was not “authorized by the District.” Since then, others have placed life rings in the same area.
For more information on current beach regulations in Chicago, visit the Chicago Park District’s website.