Under Water: Searching for Air Pt. 1

Taylor Holt
Updated: July 12, 2018 10:31 PM

August 10th of last year, it was a scene on Park Point you never want to imagine. 


"We got a call right around 4:30 this afternoon of a possibility of two swimmers in the water," said Duluth Fire Assistant Chief, Erik Simonson.

A massive effort to save 10-year-old Lillian Fuglie and her father, Ryan turned into a race against time, and battle with Lake Superior.

"The size of the waves are about 6, 7 feet and it's really hard to search in those conditions," said Simonson.

Onlookers watched from shore as a joint search went underway for nearly two hours. Eventually, the two were pulled from the water.

"CPR was performed on both victims," said SImonson.

Sadly, it was the waves that won the battle, leaving a 12-year-old girl who watched from the shore without a sister and a dad.

Almost a year later, it's still a vivid picture for those who were part of the rescue including U.S. Coast Guard Petty Commander Erik Soderman.

"It hit everybody pretty hard," said Soderman. "The wind was coming from the north and the area of the lake is very wide at that point, so you get a lot build up.

That day he says they were able to use their large response boats - 29 and 45 feet long, but currents were too big even for them.

"Even for boats that are designed for it, it's dangerous," said Soderman.

Incidents like that are not uncommon in any of our Great Lakes. Since 2010, the Great Lakes Search Rescue Project has tracked 662 drownings, with 39 so far this year. 

"They do happen a lot. A lot of times, it happens in the change of seasons when the waters really cold and it's really hot outside," said Soderman.

Just last week, a search took place on Lake Michigan, where a 13-year-old girl died after being caught in a rip current. She was among a group of teens who went swimming near a Chicago beach, despite warnings. The sister of one of the teens that luckily made it out said they were playing in the water when several of them went under.

"My mom told him not to go, but he wanted to be with his friends," said Marisol Perez, the sister of one of the boys rescued. 

Back on Duluth's shores, the desire to be pals and in the water are no different.

"I've always known about the danger of the lake,"said Jack Norlen, who's lived in Duluth all of his life.

Norlen has lost two people to Superior's deadly waves. 
"A kid in my graduating class, when I was in like 8th grade, he passed away that way. He jumped into Lester River and was taken away by the current," said Norlen.

"People underestimate Lake Superior a lot thinking that it's just a normal inland lake," said Soderman.

Soderman and others who have to save people in it agree, it's a huge body of water with disastrous characteristics. 

"Our lake is trickier than most for some obvious reasons - the size and the depth of it and certainly how cold it stays throughout the entire year. If you're in that water or an accident happens in that water, it's a lot more likely that something bad will happen," said Duluth Fire Department Rescue Captain Kevin Haney.

He says it's her waves that can be most deceiving. 

"You can't tell that they are that big. Just standing on the beach, they look like smaller rollers coming in, just because the water is very shallow right there. As soon as you get out a little deeper that's where the big waves kick in and then your rip current is created," said Haney.

Ironically, Haney says most accidents happen when conditions are good.

"They (people) just maybe over estimate their abilities to swim or underestimate the water itself," he said.

That showed in another situation on a beautiful Saturday this weekend, when the Coast Guard had to rescue a 26-year-old swimmer in the Duluth Harbor. He survived thanks to the quick efforts but not everybody does.

"Drowning can happen within seconds. If it's really rough out and you have some rough seas, you take a big breath of air and you get water instead, you could drown right there," said Soderman.

"Most people don't think anything bad is going to happen," said Haney. "I think that it (drowning) happens too much and I think a lot of it is avoidable."


Taylor Holt

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