Grand Haven Tribune August 5, 1994
Several washed off pier, one missing
Barry Benson comforted family members as the search resumed this morning. Tribune photo - Mark Fellows
Family members continued a painful vigil at south Grand Haven pier as the search resumed this morning for a man swept into the water Thursday.
Thomas Sanders, 51, of Marshall was among several persons knocked off the pier yesterday afternoon, as unsettled conditions preceding a cold front churned up waves that washed across the end of the breakwater.
A family member, Shirley Newberry, remained in North Ottawa Community Hospital’s intensive care unit this morning in stable condition. The ordeal for members of her family, and several other people who were on the pier, occurred shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday, authorities reported.
SEARCHING THIS morning for Sanders were divers from the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department, the Ottawa County Dive team and U.S. Coast Guard crews.
Barry Benson of Marshall, the presumed victim’s brother-in-law, was among a group of four family members that walked out to the end of the pier early yesterday evening. He said the conditions didn’t become severe until the party reached the end of the structure.
“It was terrible. The waves would wash over the end and there would be a foot of water,” he recalled this morning.
Benson told authorities the group was starting on its way back and saw a large wave approaching. They grabbed for the elevated catwalk’s supports, but Thomas Sanders' and Newberry’s grips were broken, he reported. He told authorities both fell to the pier deck and he tried to help them, but the two were swept off the pier by a second wave. Benson said he was saved only by hanging on to the metal stanchion.
The wave swept the pair from the channel side of the pier south to the lake side.
SPOTTING FOUR to five people in the water, Benson said he called for help from two Ski-Doo riders nearby and other people in the area. The Ski-Doo riders tried to help but were also hampered by waves.
Benson said he dove in and swam toward Tom Sanders, who he said was panicking, and Benson had to let go to avoid being pulled under. Benson then tried to get Newberry to safety but the current sapped his strength and he had to let her go to make his own way back to the pier.
Newberry was rescued by the personal watercraft riders, who assisted her in reaching a boat. That boat took her to the U.S. Coast Guard station, from where she transported to the hospital.
As rescue personnel arrived near the end of the pier, they discovered Annette Sanders, the presumed victim’s wife, still clinging to a catwalk support. The dive team set up operations nearby.
Grand Haven Public Safety Officer Scott Shelton was also swept off the pier by the wave action, along with officer Otto Fricke. Both were wearing diving gear and were uninjured.
Robert Peskorse of Creve-Couer, Miss. told officers he was walking on the pier with family members, and that they turned back after seeing waves increase.
As they did, he told authorities, between four or five people were swept off the pier by a large wave, including his nephew, Derek H. Ruggles, 12, of Denver, Colo. Peskorse jumped in and was able to assist Ruggles back to the pier, he said.
GROUPS TRAPPED out on the pier got back to safety by walking from catwalk support to support between waves.
Deteriorating conditions caused rescuers to call off the rescue operations shortly after 7 p.m.
While GHPSD Deputy Director Rich Szczepanek described the decision to abandon Thursday's search efforts, a Coast Guard helicopter began circling the area divers had just left.
Bensen, a member of the presumed victim’s family, this morning called the incident “a senseless accident that could have been prevented.”
He credited authorities for the crisis team assembled to help the family and conduct the search, but took exception to one rescue official’s public comments implying that people should have known better to be on the pier at that time.
Tourists , he said, don’t know the dangers of the pier in rough conditions.
“My concern is that doesn’t happen again, and what should be done to prevent it from happening again.
“WHY CAN’T THEY control people coming out on this pier in extreme, severe conditions like we had yesterday ?” he asked.
Grand Haven wasn’t the only place where large waves put people in danger.
Later Thursday night, four more people were knocked off the north pier Holland by large waves. Bystanders rescued the four before authorities arrived, according to the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department. There were no injuries reported in the 9 p.m. incident.
Ottawa County and Grand Haven officers were also called to another drowning report at the Grand Haven State Park beach at around 8 p.m., but were called off when the supposed victims were located on the beach.
Tribune writers Mickey Ciokajlo. A.C. VanderKolk and Mark Fellows collaborated on this report.