A 52-year-old woman went missing and a 46-year-old man died after they went swimming in hazardous waters in Lake Michigan on Sunday.
The unidentified woman, from Elgin, and Stanley Wlosek Jr., from Itasca, were part of a group of about 10 people in a “cold-weather” swim group that went in the lake near Highland Park as dangerous waves hit the lakefront, officials said.
Steve Knapp and other members of North Shore Yacht Club were getting the club ready for winter when they noticed the group arrive at an adjacent public beach in Highland Park and begin to strip down to their swimsuits.
The U.S. Coast Guard said the group was there around 10:30 a.m. for a “polar-plunge type event.”
Most jumped in and ran right back out of the water, several witnesses said.
But a few minutes later, one of the men in the group approached Knapp, 46, and asked if he could borrow some line to throw to a couple of people in the group who were struggling in the rough water.
“But he didn’t seem too concerned,” Knapp, a salesman, said Sunday afternoon from his Highland Park home.
Knapp saw two men struggling in the water, but moments later saw a third person, a woman, who was further out in open water.
“I abandoned the two guys,” Knapp said. “The girl’s situation was more dire. She was still moving, but drowning.”
The water temperature was in the low 50s, and winds up to 36 m.p.h. were tipping up swells nearly 10 feet high, according to a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The weather service issued a statement Sunday morning for northern Illinois and northwest Indiana warning of “gale-force winds” of up to 35 m.p.h. and “very hazardous waves.”
The woman was wearing a swimsuit, Knapp said.
Knapp, with the help of fellow yacht club member, Tim Peterson, tried to throw several floatation devices toward the woman, but she quickly became unresponsive.
“At one point she was almost nightmarishly close,” said Knapp. “Probably 10 to 15 feet away.”
The decision came down to whether or not to jump in after her.
“We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘What do you think?’ and Tim said, ‘Don’t do it.'”
“I did some quick calculations in my head,” said Knapp, noting that he was not wearing a life jacket, had on thick canvas overalls that would have weighed him down in the water and might have made a bad situation worse if he got into trouble.
He also has two sons, including a 12-year-old who accompanied him to the yacht club and was told to stay inside during the ordeal.
Both men chose not to jump in the water.
Knapp ran back inside the yacht club to grab a pole with a hook on the end of it, but by the time he returned the waves and wind had pushed the woman north of the yacht club.
“I’m feeling pretty mad at myself for not jumping in,” Knapp said. ” … I wasn’t a hero.”
But emergency crews also did not go in the water. Around 4 p.m. Sunday, they suspended a search for the woman, a statement from the U.S. Coast Guard said.
A helicopter launched from Traverse City, Mich., searched a 10-square-mile zone, the statement said. No boats or divers were deployed, officials said.
“Due to the heavy seas, the Coast Guard and other agencies were only able to respond with land resources,” the statement said.
Highland Park fire chief Larry Amidei said they were unable to even launch a rescue boat.
“We tried to put our boat in the water, couldn’t get it in because of the waves,” said Amidei.
Wlosek was in distress and was pulled from the water by a Highland Park firefighter who was wearing a dry suit that was tethered to a fixed object on shore.
Upon reaching shore, CPR was administered and he was taken by ambulance to Highland Park Hospital, officials said.
He was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Family members at the hospital declined to comment.
A Highland Park rescuer dislocated his shoulder while trying to grab the man, Amidei said.