July 11, 2002 at 5:13 PM EST - Updated July 1 at 8:55 AM
By JOHN SEEWER, Associated Press Writer
HURON, Ohio (AP) - Rough water forced divers to suspend their search Thursday for four men believed to have drowned in 5-foot Lake Erie waves while trying to rescue the fiancee of one of them.
With conditions keeping search boats docked and forcing divers to leave the water after two hours, the search was limited to a Coast Guard helicopter and firefighters on the beach.
The four men were swimming at a public beach Wednesday with Amy Renee Anderson, 22, of Findlay, and went to her aid when she was knocked down by waves, according to Huron Fire Chief John Zimmerman. Firefighters later rescued Anderson.
City officials had warned the five to stay out of the water because of the strong current. Nickel Plate beach, which has no lifeguards, was closed for swimming Wednesday morning but people were allowed to sunbathe and picnic, City Manager Mike Tann said.
There were people jogging and children building sand castles on the beach Thursday, but the water remained off-limits. Relatives of the missing were secluded behind police lines.
Divers and Coast Guard officers searched the churning water Wednesday for five hours with boats and helicopters but could not find the four friends.
The search was called off at 7 p.m. Wednesday because of 5- to 8-foot waves.
"We hope there's some miracle that they swam ashore someplace, but we doubt it," Zimmerman said.
The missing were identified Thursday as Jarred Smith, 18, of nearby Sandusky; Steve Cupec, 27, of Karns City, Pa., and Kyle Kroetz, 29, and Matthew Smith, 21, both of Findlay.
Anderson and Cupec were engaged, according to Zimmerman.
Sandra Kroetz, 58, mother of Kyle Kroetz, said her son died trying to save a life.
"I know he was a hero. He went in to save another girl," she said.
There was a drowning at the half-mile long beach last year and another in 1999. A private beach that was not closed abuts Nickel Plate.
Neighbors around the beach gathered on the sand to watch the pounding surf and rescue efforts as the sun set Wednesday. Many said they know better than to go out in rough waters.
"You just don't mess with the lake," said Richard Evans, who has lived near the beach for 12 years.
"People just have no common sense," said Jennifer Willis, of Sandusky. "They don't realize how dangerous this lake can be."
Tann said the beach is closed for swimming two or three times during most summers because of strong winds.
Visitors Wednesday were warned verbally not to swim and handed fliers explaining the dangerous conditions.
"This is not something that's cast in stone, but when you tell people, 'Don't go in the water. It's closed.' I don't know how more clear you can make it," he said.
Doris Stover, who was staying at a nearby cottage, said about 10 people were swimming when the woman started to struggle.
Huron firefighter Monty Tapp heard the call about the missing woman on his radio at his home on the beach. Tapp got to the beach before rescue crews arrived and swam out to save Anderson about 75 feet from the shore.
The men had disappeared before Tapp got to the water.
Fire Capt. Otis Bronner jumped in to help. Tapp and Bronner were overcome with exhaustion from fighting the current. Three firefighters went out in a boat to bring the firefighters and Anderson to shore.
"The conditions are awful to swim. The conditions are awful to make a rescue. We're awfully lucky our two firefighters didn't drown. They were close to that," Zimmerman said.
The Huron Fire Department got a call about a drowning at the beach at 2:20 p.m., and rescuers did not learn until they arrived that the four men were missing.
Eight firefighters tied themselves to each other and trudged into the water as a human chain, but the search was complicated by the waves.
Anderson was treated at the Firelands Community Hospital in Sandusky and released, a hospital spokeswoman said. Firefighters Tapp and Bronner were treated for exhaustion at the hospital.
The waves on a windy afternoon would be about 5 feet high around the time the swimmers went missing, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Gregory Goetz of the Marblehead station.
"There were probably waves occasionally bigger, and there would have been a strong undertow," he said.
Tom King, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Cleveland, said wind was gusting at about 29 mph off shore near the beach.
Huron is about 50 miles west of Cleveland.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)