TRAVERSE CITY — Sudden exposure to cold water likely triggered two so-called “dry drownings” that claimed lives in Grand Traverse County.
Grand Traverse sheriff’s officials identified Miles Percy Smith, 16, of Wyandotte, as the teen who initially was reported missing Sunday from the Sands Motel and later was found floating in East Grand Traverse Bay.
Medical Examiner Matthew Houghton identified Michael Anthony Michalski, 53, of Fife Lake, as Sunday’s other drowning victim. His body was located in Fife Lake.
Houghton said water was not found in either victim’s lungs, indicating that a reflex response called a “laryngospasm” closed off their airways.
“That means when they hit the water their larynx closes off,” he said. “Apparently, there’s no water in the lungs but no way for air to get in.”
The incidents were reported Sunday afternoon within a span of 30 minutes. Sheriff’s deputies were first dispatched to Fife Lake at 5:30 p.m. to a report of an unresponsive male in the water near a beach area. Lt. Chris Clark said bystanders attempted CPR, but the victim was pronounced dead when medical personnel arrived.
”Half an hour later, one of our deputies was sent to the Sands Motel for a missing 16-year-old from Wyandotte,” Clark said.
Houghton said Smith was autistic and last seen by his stepfather on a paddleboard about 50 feet from a nearby dock. The teenager was missing for about two hours before the sheriff’s department marine division found him floating about 75 yards from the shore. Attempts to resuscitate the boy were unsuccessful and he was declared dead at the scene.
Chris McCoy, manager of the Sands Motel, said Smith’s family checked into the motel that day. He said one of his friend’s children saw the teen swimming and playing in the water that day.
“I’m sick to my stomach,” McCoy said.
Clark said both victims were found in about 5 feet of water.
“The Fife Lake man had been seen swimming pretty much all day in that swim area,” he said. “There are no indications he was out deeper.”
Fife Lake Village President Lisa Leedy said she knew the victim as a “local character” who was always riding his bike around town. She said the village beach does not have lifeguards and she expects water safety to be discussed at the next village council meeting.
Houghton estimated about three-quarters of local drownings are dry drownings. He said cold water that hits air passages can initiate the dry drowning reflex and surface temperatures at both locations were estimated to be about 63 degrees.
”It drops a degree every foot,” he said. “It was probably 58 to 59 degrees where (Smith) was found.”
Houghton said the first of the three local drownings this year — Owen Williamson, 17, drowned in North Twin Lake in May — was a classic “wet drowning.”
Dave Benjamin is executive director of public relations and project management with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to reducing drowning death. He said the risk of drowning increases the longer an individual stays in cold water.
”It’s going to impair your ability to swim,” he said.
Benjamin said Great Lakes swimmers should be aware of dangerous currents running parallel to shorelines and around man-made structures like piers. He said swimmers caught in currents should follow the “flip, float and follow” method for riding currents until they subside.
“When someone is panicking they’re exhaling more than inhaling,” he said. “The lungs are your own personal flotation device, you want to keep them filled. Keep them calm and clear while you’re floating.”
Drowning victims seldom panick, splash and yell like in Hollywood portrayals, Benjamin said. It may be possible for an onlooker to watch someone as they drown and not even know it.
“When someone is actively drowning they’re just about always facing shore, their head is back, their mouth at water level and they’re doing ‘climbing the ladder’ motion in the water,” he said. “If a person is doing the signs of drowning, they typically have 15 to 45 seconds before final submersion. If you don’t know what you’re looking for you might miss it.”