Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 30, 2013

Drowning death shows inland lakes' danger

BY MATT TROUTMAN mtroutman@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Public safety officials say the drowning death of a Virginia attorney on Long Lake is yet another reminder that the seemingly placid waters of northwest Michigan’s inland lakes can be just as treacherous as those of Lake Michigan.

Authorities identified John McCauley Braswell, 58, of Alexandria, Va., as the swimmer who died Friday in Long Lake. He was the sixth water-related death in the Grand Traverse region this summer and the third in an inland lake.

“I think it’s the most we’ve had in my three-county area,” said Matthew Houghton, medical examiner for Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Benzie counties.

Braswell was a partner in the law firm of Redmon, Peyton and Braswell, where he worked on real estate law and litigation. Gant Redmon worked with Braswell for 30 years and described Braswell as a family man devoted to his wife, Pauline, and daughter, Morgan.

Braswell was vacationing on Long Lake with his family. Redmon described Braswell as a strong swimmer.

“He used to swim laps and so forth,” he said. “He was not a novice swimmer.”

Grand Traverse County sheriff’s Capt. Randy Fewless said Braswell started a quarter-mile swim from Picnic Island to the mainland at the same time as a 51-year-old male relative who lived off Timbers Trail at the northeast corner of Long Lake. The relative told authorities that Braswell said he could not make the swim to shore and turned back toward the island.

“That’s the last time he saw (Braswell),” he said.

The other man continued on and made it back to mainland, then contacted authorities at about 12:20 p.m. when Braswell was not found on Picnic Island. Fewless said a dive team found Braswell’s body two hours later, submerged in 48 feet of water, about 150 yards from the island.

Houghton said water was found in Braswell’s lungs and the cause of death was freshwater wet drowning. He said a heart attack was “possible, but unlikely,” and the family requested a private autopsy.

Brandon Munoz, territory aquatic specialist for American Red Cross in Michigan, said even experienced swimmers can find themselves in trouble in open water, especially on long swims in unguarded inland lakes like Long Lake. He said one of the key points of any water safety program is to never swim alone.

“If you start off with somebody, stay with them,” he said.

Braswell is the second drowning in Long Lake Township this summer. Owen Williamson, 17, of Traverse City, drowned in North Twin Lake in May. The other death in a local inland lake, Michael Anthony Michalski, 53, of Fife Lake, occurred June 23.

Seventeen drownings occurred in Lake Michigan in the last six weeks, with three from Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. Dave Benjamin, spokesman for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said the “flip, float and follow” survival strategy that keeps swimmers alive through Lake Michigan rip currents and waves applies just as well to inland lakes.

“You flip on your back to conserve energy and calm yourself down from a panic,” he said. “As long as (you're) floating you’re alive, as long as you’re struggling you're drowning ... Whenever you’re in water over your head and have exhausted yourself, float.”

Benjamin said men also are more likely to overestimate their abilities as swimmers than women. He said all but one of the 17 Lake Michigan drownings were men. All six of the local water-related deaths involved males.

Munoz said recent water deaths prompted the Red Cross to seek grants for water safety training specifically for the Grand Traverse area, but any programs wouldn’t start until next spring. Until then, the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project plans a water safety class Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in Leland’s Old Art Building. Benjamin said the class was organized in response to the death of Brian Paul Rolston, 16, who drowned in a rip current off Leland last year.