Chief: Beach To Remain Closed Until Men's Bodies Found

By JOHN SEEWER, Associated Press Writer

HURON, Ohio (AP) - Four men believed to have drowned in 5-foot Lake Erie waves were wading in knee-deep water with a woman engaged to one of them when she was swept out by a current, a fire official said.

Amy Renee Anderson told Huron Fire Chief John Zimmerman that she remembers little else.

"It was like a blur," Zimmerman said. "She remembers being in the water then seeing (a firefighter) coming toward her and then being back on the beach."

The four men went in after Anderson, 22, of Findlay. Nickel Plate Beach will remain closed until the bodies of the four men are found, Zimmerman said.

Lake conditions, calmer with waves 1 feet to 3 feet, were improved Friday morning and the search resumed, police said.

Search boats and divers were pulled out of the water after two hours of searching Thursday morning, and a coast guard helicopter was called off a few hours later.

Two firefighters were overcome by the current while trying to save Anderson. Firefighters used a boat to rescue the three.

Missing were Jehrod Smith, 19, of nearby Sandusky; and Kyle Kroetz, 29, Steve Cupec, 27, and Matthew Smith, 21, all of Findlay. Matthew and Jehrod Smith are not related. Anderson and Cupec were engaged.

The city started a new program last week to warn swimmers about dangerous currents that can pull someone far from shore. The beach, which has no lifeguards, was closed for swimming Wednesday but people were allowed to sunbathe and picnic, City Manager Mike Tann said.

The friends were warned not to swim by a city staff member at the park, Tann said.

But Jehrod Smith's brother, Talon, said friends who were there told him a different story. He said nine people were in the group and were aware of the warnings. They later asked a park worker if the waves were still too dangerous, he said, and were told only to be careful in the water.

"They asked her more than once," Talon Smith said.

The brother, who watched part of the search, said he can't understand why people were allowed on the beach at all.

"They should have closed the whole thing down," he said. "When I looked out and saw that water, I knew somebody screwed up."

A message was left with Tann seeking further comment Thursday. Derrick Bell, who worked with Kroetz and Matthew Smith at Wal-Mart in Findlay, said he was at the beach with the group for 15 minutes when it became clear Anderson was in trouble.

"Amy looked like she was having real problems. She was kicking and screaming, and Steve yelled for us to help," Bell told The (Toledo) Blade. "Kyle, Jehrod and Matt looked fine. They weren't screaming. They weren't waving, and all of the sudden we didn't see them."

While undertow in oceans is more severe and constant, it can also be dangerous in Lake Erie, said Andy McDowell, director of public programs for the Great Lakes Science Center. "Whenever it's very strong, there's almost nothing you can do to get out of the way," McDowell said.

Undertow is caused by a strong backwash from waves breaking on a beach. When waves reach over 6 feet, it's usually considered unsafe to swim, he said.

If stuck, don't swim toward or against the waves, but parallel to the beach, he said.

Sandra Kroetz, 58, mother of Kyle Kroetz, said her son would have known the dangers of the water.

"It was a day off and they went to the beach, knowing the water wasn't very good and knowing they shouldn't go in," she said. "They were just going to kick around the beach."

But Kroetz had been an Eagle Scout and his friend Matthew Smith was a high school track athlete, which may have convinced them they could save Anderson, relatives said.

Smith's father Frank Smith said his son, was an "outstanding athlete. That's probably why he thought he could do this, because he was in very good shape."

Frank Smith said Friday morning on NBC's "Today" show that he and his wife felt their son had drowned but found comfort in their faith.

"I think, given the conditions, it's hard to have hope for something like that right now," he said. "The hope that we have is found in our faith in the Lord."

After several reports of strong tides last week, the city published a flier warning swimmers to be cautious.

There was a drowning at the half-mile long beach last year and another in 1999. Tann said the beach is closed for swimming two or three times during most summers because of strong winds.

Anderson and the two rescuers who became exhausted -- firefighter Monty Tapp and Fire Capt. Otis Bronner -- were treated Wednesday at Firelands Regional Medical Center and released.

Eight firefighters tied themselves together Wednesday and trudged into the water to search for the four men but were hampered by waves.

Huron is about 50 miles west of Cleveland.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)