As the search continued for the body of a swimmer who got swept away in Lake Michigan by strong waves and gale-force winds, family members offered thanks to a rescuer whose heart has been heavy with grief because he wasn’t able to save the woman.
Lena Lemesh, 52, of Elgin, was part of a “cold-weather” swimming group of at least 10 people Sunday that jumped in the water at a beach in Highland Park Sunday morning. She and two other men struggled in the cold water and nearly 10-foot waves on a day the National Weather Service had issued a warning about “very hazardous waves” at the lakefront.
Steve Knapp and Tim Peterson were at the North Shore Yacht Club, adjacent to the beach where the polar plungers jumped in, and tried to help Lemesh by throwing flotation devices without success.
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.’”
Knapp was not wearing a life jacket and had on thick canvas overalls and feared it might have made a bad situation worse if he got into trouble. He also has two sons.
Emergency responders also did not go into the water because of the conditions. Highland Park officials said they were unable to launch a boat because of the waves. The U.S. Coast Guard sent a helicopter to search from the air.
On Monday, after reading an interview in which Knapp discussed his struggle with whether or not he made the right decision, a family member of Lemesh’s reached out to the Sun-Times to pass along a message.
“We … just wanted to ask you to pass a message to him thanking him for everything he tried to do for Lena. No one can ever blame anyone for thinking of his own life or family, and no one can ever expect anyone to do anymore than what he and his friend tried to do,” said Zina Lemesh, who is married to Lena’s ex-husband, but has been a close friend and stepmother to their son for many years.
Knapp on Monday said he was “still feeling low.” But upon hearing the message, he said: “That helps a lot.”
Another man who was in the water, Stanley Wlosek Jr., 46, of Itasca, was pulled from the water by a firefighter in a dry suit who was tethered to a fixed object on the shore. He was pronounced dead shortly after being taken to Highland Park Hospital for treatment, authorities said.
Lena Lemesh worked as a fabric engineer at a suburban fabric company and had recently purchased a home in Elgin, Zina Lemesh said.
Her 22 year old son, a graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology, was recently sworn into the Navy.
“She was at the height of her life,” Zina Lemesh said.
Lena Lemesh, who immigrated from Ukraine in 2000, had one sister and parents who live in her native country.
The search for Lemesh’s body will continue Tuesday morning, although officials confirmed Monday the search was considered a recovery operation and not a rescue.