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Mighty Lake Erie

Updated: Mar 14

It was a hot early August afternoon. The park was crowded as people streamed in to take a swim or sit on the beach. Given it was just two weeks before school was scheduled to begin, the day also attracted an abundance of teenagers.

 

I was sitting in the lighthouse living room with my laptop, just having finished a tour. The tour was for a sweet young couple who said that relatives were watching their baby so they could enjoy an afternoon getaway from parenting responsibilities. As usual, I walked them around the lighthouse providing information about the history and the renovations I had completed. We stopped at the top to take in the view and watch the people who had made their way to the North break wall. We saw two ladies sitting on the blocks chatting. We also watched a couple of fishermen casting their lines to the East. But what caught our eye was a bevy of teenagers strewn up and down the West side of the North break wall gleefully jumping off and crawling back up to do it over again.

 

Despite many attempts by the Coast Guard and law enforcement to stop people from jumping off the North break wall – particularly the high platform that houses the channel marker – people, especially teenagers, still did. Lake Erie is a monster. History has many stories of shipwrecks and people being lost at sea while boating or swimming in that very area. The waves can kick up at any time and undertows are common. Regardless, common sense didn’t stop the teenagers that day from the thrill of the jump or the rush of the waves.

 

After the tour, I settled into the coolest corner of my living room and checked my work email. I got an unusual email from someone at my company asking about my current contract number. We were in a recompete with my current contract and the competition was tough. The response from the government was already overdue, so news could come at any moment – even a late, sultry, Summer Friday afternoon. 

 

As I continued reading my email, my phone buzzed with a text from a woman I knew named Wendy who worked for Mentor Headlands State Park.  It was about 4:00 pm and Wendy’s text asked, “Hey, are you at the lighthouse?” “Yes,” I replied. “Could you look out the window and see what is going on? I’ve got a huge group of first responders who say they received calls from out there,” she continued.

 

I peered out the window and saw many of the same people still on the North break wall as I had seen from above when I gave the tour not long before. I also saw a Coast Guard boat plying back and forth at the end of the break wall methodically moving what appeared to be a stick in the water.

 

I relayed to Wendy that there were several people (mostly teenagers) out there along with a Coast Guard boat, which seemed to be looking for something in the water. That was what Wendy needed to send the first responders down the beach.


As I continued to peer outside, first responders of all kinds began to arrive having trudged the 20 minutes through the sand from the parking lot. I saw fire and paramedics from Mentor, police from Lake County, and more firefighters from Painesville Township and Grand River. Most seemed downright confused after the long, hot walk from the parking lot. In fact, one firefighter even came up the lighthouse staircase asking if he could get through to the other side (the answer was “no,” the only way to get to the North break wall was to walk around the West side on the rocks).

 

I looked again and saw several first responders talking to two young girls, wet from swimming. After a few minutes, one of the girls came running around the West side, hopping quickly on the rocks, and bolted down the beach in a significant hurry. The other girl was still with the first responders. The rest of the people who were on the North breakwall -- the two ladies chatting, the fishermen, and the remaining teens were all sent back to the beach.

 

More people and equipment began to arrive on the water, including jet skis from the Fairport Harbor police department and a Lake County Sheriff’s department boat with a dive team.  After nearly 1½ hours from the first text I received from Wendy, the first responders released the 2nd young girl. She began walking alone on the West side rocks back to the beach crying and shivering. Why she wasn’t escorted by a first responder I did not know, and, frankly, was very disappointed about.  She looked to be about 14 or 15 years old.

 

As I saw her round the lighthouse, I grabbed a sweatshirt, towel, and headed down the staircase to intercept her. When she arrived at the bottom of the stairs, I stopped to see if I could help. I offered her a sweatshirt, towel and a bottle of water. She refused the sweatshirt and towel, but took the water.

 

“What happened?” I asked.

 

Her name was Mikayla. She had been swimming with her younger sister, Gianna (who was the one who ran back earlier), and her friend, Jameer. They had been jumping off the break wall amongst the other teenagers. They jumped once, made their way back up and jumped off again. After the second jump, Mikayla got to the platform first and helped pull her sister up from the water. She looked down for Jameer, but he was not there. He did not surface from the water. Mikayla jumped in after Jameer, could not find him, and quickly realized she should not risk being there any longer. She safely got herself out, but Jameer was nowhere to be seen. Whether he was pulled under by a rogue wave or simply took on water and dropped below the surface, no one knew.

 

Once they released Mykayla, the first responders began walking back down the beach. The Coast Guard boat, the Sheriff’s boat and divers, the jet skis -- as well as several private boats -- continued to move back and forth around the end of the break wall looking for Jameer. The Coast Guard auxiliary had set up a perimeter area of buoys so other boaters would keep their distance. The watercraft searched for nearly 3 hours without success. 

 

The light was beginning to dim. Soon the sun would drop down to the horizon. I watched as the personal boats slowly departed and the jet skis zipped back to their docks. The Sheriff’s boat collected its divers and their equipment and quietly departed. The Coast Guard boat followed, picked up the perimeter of buoys, and turned toward the Fairport Station. All that was left was a sad and heavy blanket of grief, disbelief, and frustration.


As I went to bed that evening, I continuously looked out the window hoping for something to appear – a body, or maybe some clothing – but nothing surfaced.

 

The next morning, I awoke when the sun rose and began streaking through the window – about 6:00 am. The trauma and events of the previous day replayed over and over in my mind. Despite being early in the morning, I couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up and went to the guest room to look out the North window hoping to see something in the water – nothing. The calm water just rippled from left to right over and over. I then returned to my room to look toward the South and the beach.

 

Despite the distance to the beach, I thought I noticed a person standing there. The sun continued to rise higher in the sky as I walked downstairs to grab the binoculars. I stepped out the front door with the binoculars and focused on the beach. There, standing staring to the North, was a single man. He stood stoically -- not moving, not pacing -- just staring. I later found out, that man was Jameer’s father. Given the early hour, he must have been right at the gate to the park when it opened at sunrise.

 

I watched for a few minutes. In all my years at the lighthouse, this was the saddest thing I had ever seen. The man just stood on the beach and stared. He was clearly in shock and disbelief, hoping for a miracle. Even more incredulous was that he stood vigil like that for hours.

 

After about 2½ hours, more people began to arrive at the beach to join the man. I kept checking the water to see if the Coast Guard had returned. One of the firefighters from the night before had told me that search divers have a set amount of time they can work and once that is up, they’re done.

 

As it was nearly 9:00 am, I was expecting more first responders to return to the beach, but it was eerily quiet. What I didn’t know was that the park staff had shut down that end of the park to visitors while the search for Jameer continued.

 

Shortly thereafter, I looked out to see an older man gingerly walking down the break wall toward the lighthouse. He wasn’t dressed as a first responder, so I wasn’t sure who he was. When he reached the rocks near the bottom of the lighthouse, I poked my head outside and asked him if I could be of assistance. “How do you get around to the other side?” he asked. “You have to walk around the rocks [to the West],” I pointed. “But it’s a bit tricky,” I said. He acknowledged my warning and turned in that direction. Just a few minutes later he returned. “You were right,” he said. “I don’t think I can do that.” “Would you like to come in?” I asked him. “Okay,” he said.

 

I introduced myself to the gentleman who had gray hair peering from underneath his baseball cap. He seemed to be around 60 years old. He explained to me that he was the grandfather of the two girls, Mykala and Gianna, who were involved in the previous day’s drowning. He asked me if I saw the event. I told him that I was here at the lighthouse the entire afternoon and evening but didn’t see the person actually go missing. He asked me if I could corroborate some of the events as relayed to him by his granddaughters.

 

We sat and talked for quite some time. He told me about his granddaughters, who he and his wife (their grandmother) had recently received full custody of after a long, sorted family court case. Apparently, his daughter (their mother) had gotten into drugs, was trying to get clean and was incapable of raising the girls and another younger boy. The girls’ father was also out of the picture, so he and his wife took on the added responsibility. They had lived with them for the last two years, but only recently had a year’s long court proceeding officially finalize custody to the grandparents. Just two weeks before, he and his wife were celebrating their success and relieved that the children were now legally stable and totally in their care. However, the girls’ Mother did have occasional visitation and had taken all three children to the beach on the day before.

 

The sad and distraught grampa told me what the girls told him about their day at the beach with their Mother and how they ended up heading to the break wall. Mykala said her friend, Jameer, came to the beach to join them and when he arrived, the three walked to the break wall to jump. The youngest child stayed back with the mother.

 

As he continued the story, I happened to look out the door and saw another man making his way down the rocks. This gentleman walked even more slowly and carefully toward the lighthouse. I pointed him out to my visitor. We both got up to go outside. As the gentleman got closer, my visitor said, “That’s Jameer’s father.” My heart sank. He was the one who had been standing vigil on the beach. He had finally mustered enough courage to test the rocks and move closer. We met him at the bottom of the staircase. Again, I introduced myself and invited him inside. “Can you see out the other side,” he asked. “Yes, you can,” I said. “I’ll show you.”

 

I escorted both men up the stairs, into the lighthouse and proceeded to the laundry room window, which had the best view of the North break wall. “They said something about the third wheel back…” his voice trailed off. “Yes, I said. If you look on the left side, the third circular cement ballast is where the teens were jumping from,” I said.  A ragged towel was still draped over the edge there. Teens often tied towels to whatever they could as a means to pull themselves out of the water. I offered them my binoculars and they used them to look again.

 

It was not a long visit. Jameer’s father was clearly uncomfortable being so close, but felt it was his duty. He thanked me for showing him around and left to make his way back to the beach. Several of Jameer’s family members were there waiting. After a few more minutes, the girls’ grandfather also left. I assured the grandfather that from what I had seen, the girls did everything right. They were not at fault for what happened to Jameer, other than being typical teenagers. I wish I’d gotten his contact information to stay in touch, but it didn’t seem appropriate at the time.

 

Not long after they left, a Coast Guard boat appeared to begin another search.  It was nearly 10:00 am (which seemed like a late start to me). However, I learned later that the Coast Guard was waiting for a dive crew coming from Cleveland. As the Coast Guard and dive crew undertook a methodical search back and forth at the end of the breakwall, I saw more people gathering on the beach.  I received a text from Wendy asking if I had a cooler at the lighthouse. I replied “yes,” and she said she was bringing out a pop-up tent and water and ice for those waiting on the beach. Wendy told me that my end of the beach was still closed to the public and the people waiting were all Jameer’s family and friends. I grabbed the cooler and walked down the breakwall to meet Wendy.


We set up the tent she brought out on a gator and loaded the water and ice into my cooler.  We hoped to give some shade and respite to those desperately waiting for answers. There was not much conversation with the people waiting, but I did mention that I owned the lighthouse and would be around if they needed something.

 

A bit later, I decided to go into town to run some errands. With the Coast Guard and divers on site, I thought it would be a long day of searching. I opted to pick up some lunch for those waiting on the beach and any first responders who might come by. I stopped by the grocery store and filled my backpack with hot dogs and hamburgers to grill as well as chips, various salads, and cookies. I got back to the park and made my way out to the beach. By the time I reached the beach where the family had been waiting, everyone was gone. It was close to 2:00 pm. All that was left was the tent and my cooler with a few bottles of water. I gazed out to the lake and saw the Coast Guard boat was also gone. The search had ended.

 

I trudged the rest of the way to the lighthouse with enough food for about a dozen people. Dismayed and disappointed, I unloaded the groceries and stared at the lake. There was no evidence of a search, an accident or that anything was amiss. Pleasure boats sailed by, and jets skis zipped in and out.

 

I texted Wendy that the search was done for the day and the people had left the beach. She could come get her tent when she had time. I watched for her gator and when I saw it approach, I walked down the breakwall to meet her. I helped her dismantle the tent and load it into the vehicle. She asked if I wanted the remaining bottles of water and I said, “yes.”  I took the water, my cooler, and watched her drive away. I walked back down the breakwall and into the lighthouse. It was another hot, August, summer day. Just 24 hours before, teens had been frolicking at the beach and jumping from the breakwall.

 

I sat quietly with my thoughts. I wondered how Jameer’s family was coping.  I wondered how Mykala and Gianna were doing.  I wondered how the divers and first responders were recovering. I wondered about so many things – especially life and death. I didn’t feel like doing much the rest of the day. Without a/c at the lighthouse, I stayed by a window, out of the sun to keep cool. As afternoon turned into evening, I began to hear voices. I looked out the window to the South and saw people back on the beach. I saw teenagers walking the path toward the North breakwall. My heart ached. Didn’t they know someone just died there? Didn’t they know this was not a playground but a deathtrap? Did they want to be next? I tried to warn them, but couldn’t muster the right words.

 

As day slipped into evening, I pulled out my phone and Googled, “What happens when someone drowns?” Google began to spit a variety of gruesome answers… “depending on whether the water is warm or cold, a body can take between 1 and 3 days to surface from the water.” Some people I spoke to said that a body can also move significantly down the lake, depending on the wind and current. The body could wash up on someone’s beach, or never be found. Mighty Lake Erie does not guarantee closure.

 

As the sun set, I began packing my things to return to Virginia. I had planned to leave on Sunday morning for the drive home. That night I slept fitfully as thoughts of Jameer raced in my head. I woke up in the morning and finished packing. Whenever I leave the lighthouse, I close it up – shut the windows, lock the door, and take the trash and recyclables. When all was in order, I set off down the breakwall. I turned and gazed back one last time at the lighthouse and said a prayer. I prayed for Jameer, I prayed for his family and friends, and I prayed that he’d be found to bring some closure to such a tragic event. My mind was still racing as I drove the six hours home. 

 

As soon as I returned home, I checked the computer for news from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Fairport Coast Guard, and other sources. Nothing. No updates. I remembered what Google had said about a body surfacing from the water after approximately 1-3 days. It had been just about 48 hours since Jameer made that fateful jump. So I waited.

 

On Monday morning, I checked the local NE Ohio news again. A body in the water had been discovered on Sunday evening by recreational boaters. The body was approximately ½ mile due North of the lighthouse. The Coast Guard retrieved the body and provided it to the coroner’s office.  It was, indeed, Jameer. A promising life taken far too soon by Mighty Lake Erie.




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