Life ring advocates struggle with Chicago Park District following summer drownings

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Jake Schell (Loyola Senior), Camryn Pischke (Loyola Junior), Paige Parker (Loyola Sophomore), and Lily Corona (Loyola Junior)

The August 22 drowning death of Miguel Cisneros (19) at Loyola Beach has reignited a decade-long life ring campaign against the Chicago Park District (CPD), who has long ignored such calls over fears of legal liability.

Cisneros died after jumping off of Pratt Pier near Loyola Beach. He now joins 13-year-old Darihanne Torres and 15-year-old Lexie Adu as Loyola Beach drowning victims.

Cisneros’ death marks the 21st drowning along the Chicago lakefront in 2021. Citywide, Rogers Park holds the highest rate of drowning deaths of any neighborhood, a title it has held since 2010.

Following Cisneros’ death, in early September, residents installed at least four life rings at Pratt Pier, all of which were later removed by the CPD. Residents were angered, but long-time advocates were unsurprised, stating that the CPD has long ignored the call for life rings over fears of legal liability.

However, at a Sept. 8 CPD board meeting, the district reversed its stance on life rings, stating that they would begin a pilot program to install flotation devices along the lakefront by the 2022 swim season.

But other proposed solutions, like water safety stations, were denied. At the same Sept. 8 board meeting, Nadav Shoked, professor of law at Northwestern University, said, “The most obvious legal problem is that the placement of these [safety] stations will render the district vulnerable to a lot of legal liability.”

Halle Quezada witnessed the drowning death of 13-year-old Darihanne Torres in July 2018, after which she co-founded the Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety. Working as a member of the city’s Chicago Water Safety Taskforce, Quezada became well acquainted with the CPD’s legal liability concerns.

According to Quezada, the CPD’s concerns over legal liability cloud its own mission statement, which calls for the safe maintenance of all parks and facilities.

Of legal liability concerns, Quezada said, “Suddenly you have the park district not working towards its core values, not working towards what it promises the public, and not working to protect people, but working to protect the public body, which is whatever makes the lawyer’s job easier.”

Leslie Perkins, a representative for Alderwoman Maria Hadden of the 49th Ward, stated that the CPD’s focus on legal liability could be counterproductive. Perkins said, “Liability could be created by knowing there is a potential solution to this issue that they chose not to pursue.”

Facing public backlash, the CPD installed two life rings around Pratt Pier on Sept. 10. However, citing the CPD’s history, Quezada and other advocates worry about the district following through with the rest of its proposed pilot program to install flotation devices.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Cisneros’ mother, Maria Diaz, on September 16 echoes these concerns. Among other allegations, the lawsuit says that the CPD promised, and failed, to install 140 water rescue stations along the lakefront prior to her son’s death.

Additionally, because of her time working with the CPD on the Chicago Water Safety Task Force, Quezada knows that the district is well aware of the severity of drowning deaths in Chicago. 

Quezada said, “We have poured over the data, and we know that the pier where Miguel drowned has the highest drowning incidence in all of Chicago. And they chose to put their blinders on. If you want to hold him [Cisneros] responsible for not knowing better, then you have to hold the CPD responsible because they did know better. And they did nothing.”

Regardless of the future of the CPD’s pilot program for life rings, Quezada said that there are also other solutions that the CPD is not considering.

Firstly, she emphasized the need for increased public education, including information about the dangers of Lake Michigan, how to avoid drowning, and what to do in a drowning emergency. According to Quezada, public education could be implemented in schools, park district classes, and through PSAs on hotel televisions.

For Quezada, it’s a simple solution that could yield real results. She said, “More school-aged children die each year from drowning than they do from fires, active shooters, tornadoes, and earthquakes combined. We have drills for all those things in school, so let’s have a water safety drill too.”

Quezada also proposed a solution to the CPD’s lifeguard shortage, stating that universities and other campuses can partner with the CPD to house non-local lifeguards for a summer. She also suggested partnering with the city to give points on the Chicago Fire Department entry exam for years served as a lifeguard. 

But the CPD is looking into other options too. At their September 8th board meeting, they stated that they are considering restricting access to areas like Pratt Pier that are deemed high-risk to swim. However, Perkins stated that the 49th Ward is not currently aware of any such plans.

Alderwoman Hadden’s office also proposed improved safety signage in multiple languages as well as numbered poles on the beaches, which would make it easier for witnesses to report their exact location in the event of a drowning.

But more than anything, advocates agree that water safety starts with life rings. Quezada is confident that a life ring would have prevented Cisneros’ death, saying “He was calling for help meters from the pier, You can throw a life ring meters.”

Advocates like Quezada continue to push the CPD for improved water safety in Rogers Park and across the city. She encourages people to get involved with the Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety as well as the Great Lakes Surf Project.

More than anything, Quezada asserts that anybody is capable of creating change in their community. Whether it’s water safety or another issue, she said, “You don’t need to wait for someone to do something. If you care about something, you can do it yourself.”

For more information about waterfront safety and how to get involved, readers are encouraged to visit the following websites:

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