Grand Haven Tribune  September 20, 1985

Paraplegic drowns when
wheelchair goes off pier

BODY RECOVERED - Officers Russ Bleich, Department of Natural Resources, left, and Ron Wierda, Grand Haven City Police Department, prepare to remove the wheelchair which was recovered Thursday evening along with the body of a Grand Rapids man who drowned after the motorized vehicle went off the pier. (Tribune photo by Becky Allen)


   A Grand Rapids man died Thursday night when his motorized wheelchair took what seemed an unexpected turn and flew off the Grand Haven south pier into the channel.

   Thirty-year-old Manuel Molina, 4444 Hackley N.E., was in some 18 feet of water for two hours before divers were able to recover his body.

   A small crowd of people stood by helplessly as officials waited for divers and equipment to arrive on the scene.

   It was approximately one hour before the first diver entered the water.

   The paraplegic was enjoying an afternoon outing with his brother (also in a wheelchair), stepfather Thomas Gutchewski and two other people when the accident occurred close to 5 p.m., said Officer Ron Wierda, Grand Haven City Police.

   Temperatures were in the mild 70s and strong winds occasionally pushed waves over the lower portions of the pier, making the cement extremely slippery.

   Witness Ronald Reisinger, 25 Stickney Ridge, said he was walking some 70 feet behind the Molina party when he saw the wheelchair go into the water.

   "HE WAS GOING along with his brother in wheelchairs when all of a sudden he veered to the right, went by a couple of people and straight into the water," Reisinger said. "He shot out. He was airborn before he hit the water."

   He said it happened so quickly you couldn’t tell if it was an accident, if he hit the wrong button, or just slipped into the water. Reisinger said the man yelled as his wheelchair sped towards the water. "He was obviously terrified".

   The witness said there was no way the victim’s companions could stop him because of the speed of the accident.

   Reisinger said he didn’t realize he was running until he was almost at the scene and then knew there was no way he could bring up the person strapped into the wheelchair. He said he watched as one of the men accompanying the victim ran to the side like he was going to dive in, stop, and then just sink down to the cement.

   BOATERS IN THE channel responded to the cries for help on the pier and went after the Coast Guard. Witnesses said the Coast Guard boat was on the scene within 10 minutes, but couldn’t do anything because they had no divers. The Coast Guard boat kept other boaters out of the area.

   Stephen Bloye, Wyoming, said he had just dropped his foster son off at the Municipal Marina when he heard the call come from over the radio. He said he immediately sped back to the scene in his boat, the Lorri B. and used his sonar device to help locate the victim.

   After a couple of spottings, Bloye said he was ordered by the Coast Guard to vacate the area.

   WHEN HE OFFERED to dive down and wrap a rope around the victim, the Coast Guard ordered him to stay out of the water, he said after docking his boat and walking out onto the pier.

   Meanwhile, divers from the Ottawa county Sheriff’s, Grand Haven City Police and Ferrysburg City Police departments gathered forces and equipment to prepare for the search.

   The first diver entered the water just after 6 p.m.

   Otto Fricke, Grand Haven City Police, said the water was so murky you could compare it to closing your eyes and putting your hand into a bucket of water. You see nothing.

   DIVERS HAD TO feel around for the victim at the bottom of the rocky channel. After repeated efforts, the divers started sweeping a wider area and used the rope in hopes of connecting with the victim. Fricke said Molina’s body was found next to the pier in 18 to 21 feet of water, several feet closer to shore than where the search originated.

   It was 6:45 p.m.

   Once the body was located , divers cut the belts strapping him to the wheelchair and pulled the chair up with a rope. The victim’s body was floated to the surface and handed into a waiting OCSD patrol boat about 7:05 p.m.

   The body was taken to the government basin where a medical examiner, Dr. Arthur DeBoer, pronounced him dead.

  An autopsy was scheduled for this morning, said Lt. Gordon Durham, Grand Haven City  Police. But they did not want to do anything until the family was contacted.

An off-duty paramedic, Butch Cassidy, who works with Professional Ambulance of Muskegon, said he was nearby when he saw the emergency vehicles, so he went out on the pier to see if he could help. When asked if it was possible for Molina to have survived being submersed for some 15 or 20 minutes, he said a lot depended on the temperature of the water and Molina’s physical condition. Anything is possible, he added.

He said there was a possibility of the victim going into the Mammalian diving reflex, but there was no telling how long his body could have survived the submersion.

A freighter 20 minutes out into the lake was put on standby by the Coast Guard until rescue operations were completed.