Son’s Drowning Spurs Mich. Woman to Convince Legislators to Take Action

April 21, 2006

A Grand Haven, Mich. woman has motivated the Michigan legislature to consider legislation regarding the theft of life saving equipment on beaches in the state.

When a rip current grabbed hold of Vicki Cech’s son, Andy Fox, as he swam near a pier at the north end of Grand Haven State Park, the closest life ring was hundreds of yards away.

None of the floatation devices were kept on the pier’s catwalk or on that part of the beach, and there wasn’t enough time to retrieve one from the concession building on the south end. Two nights came and went before search divers were able to recover the body of the 17-year-old drowning victim about 150 yards from shore.

Fox’s mother doesn’t want other parents to go through what she has experienced. Since her son’s death on Sept. 3, 2003, she has become a high-profile advocate for marine safety in Michigan, an Associated Press account revealed.

Cech, a 48-year-old office manager who lives just outside of Grand Haven in Ottawa County’s Grand Haven Township, is a member of the Great Lakes Beach & Pier Safety Task Force. Documentary filmmaker Vince Deur formed the educational and advocacy group in late 2003, after Fox and two other teenagers drowned that year in Grand Haven.

The organization held fundraisers to finance the production of DVD versions of Deur’s “Respect the Power,” an instructional video on beach safety with an emphasis on the dangers of rip currents.

Private donations also helped cover the costs of packaging and mailing copies of the DVD last fall to every high school, middle school and public library in Michigan. The video is not copyrighted and the group encourages its duplication.

Taking the crusade a step further, Cech reached out to lawmakers, testifiying in late February before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of two bills that would make it a more serious crime in Michigan to steal or vandalize publicly owned marine-safety equipment.

Under the legislation, if a stolen life ring is a contributing factor in a drowning, the thief could be charged with a felony and, if convicted, sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in prison and fined up to $10,000.

The Senate passed the bills on March 16 by a 36-0 vote and the legislation now awaits House approval.

Sen. Wayne Kuipers, (R-Holland), the primary sponsor of one of the bills, says tougher laws are necessary if they help deter the theft of life rings from the shoreline.

“They’re placed there for a specific reason, and unfortunately there are too many people who think that this lifesaving equipment looks good either on the wall of a dorm room or hanging on a garage wall,” he said.

Because of liability concerns, there were no life rings on the Grand Haven pier or neighboring stretch of beach when Fox drowned. Communities and government agencies worry about who would be held legally responsible in the event someone drowns at a public beach because a life ring wasn’t where it was supposed to be.

“No one agency wants to take responsibility for this,” says Deur.

Fourteen donated life rings were installed in Grand Haven in 2004 with the cooperation of the Army Corps of Engineers after it was determined that the city’s insurance carrier would be responsible for associated liabilities.

But two of the rings were taken within a week of their installation and 22 have been stolen or vandalized since then. In October, Kuipers and other lawmakers announced their intent to enact stricter laws related to the theft of marine-safety equipment.

We have a lot of piers and beaches around the state, so this seemed like a pretty important issue to be dealt with, Kuiper added.

Through the task force’s continuing efforts, 15 life rings now are installed along the pier. Five more are on the nearby beach, as well as signs warning of rip currents. Allied Manufacturing Co., the Grand Haven company where Cech works, made and donated the hardware that supports the rings.

Cech says she hopes other Michigan lakeshore communities will follow the Grand Haven example. Her next long-term goal is to get lifeguards on public beaches in Grand Haven and, ultimately, the entire state.

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