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For Erie and the Great Lakes as a whole, 2018 ties a deadly record

This year has been Western New York's deadliest for drownings in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

The seven local drownings in 2018 – and two others with local connections – make up what's also been among the deadliest years throughout the Great Lakes.

In all, 99 people have died so far in 2018 on the Great Lakes, tying 2012 and 2016 for the highest number of deaths on record, data from the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project shows.

Those lost include a beloved Lancaster school teacher, a Southtowns fisherman and Hamburg liquor store owner who was kite-surfing.

Two other deaths on Lake Erie occurred just outside of New York waters, including the July drowning of a 12-year-old Elmwood Franklin School girl in Fort Erie, Ont.

The Buffalo sector of the U.S. Coast Guard reported, anecdotally, that it has seen more and more distress calls in the water in recent years. This year has been no exception.

"It's been a busy season – a lot of responses," said U.S. Coast Guard junior grade Lt. Kyle Maxey. "I think that's had a lot to do with paddle-boarding and an increase in the amount of watercraft on the Great Lakes."

You could also blame the heat.

The summer of 2018 was the region's seventh warmest on record, which would tend to draw more activity to the shorelines by boaters, swimmers, paddlers and jet-skiers.

The two summers this decade warmer than this past one – 2012 and 2016 – were the equally deadly years on the Great Lakes.

The first two drownings of the season occurred on Lake Erie five days – and about 5 miles – apart in May.

Eric Przykuta, a 43-year-old seventh-grade science teacher at Lancaster Middle School, died in an evening accident when the fishing boat he was riding in with two other men struck the breakwall near the Small Boat Harbor. Przykuta's body was recovered the next morning by the U.S. Coast Guard. An avid boater and outdoors enthusiast, Przykuta was not wearing a life vest.

A few days later, Hamburg fisherman Robert Maccubbin, 50, died after apparently going overboard from a raft into the 46-degree lake off of Athol Springs.

On June 21, the Surf Rescue Project cites another suspected drowning that occurred when the body of a man was recovered from Lake Erie off of Woodlawn Beach. Accomplished kite-surfer Jeff Biehler, who owned Biehler's Village Square Liquors in Hamburg, died after taking to Lake Erie on a warm and gusty afternoon on Aug. 15 and running into trouble in choppy waters. Lifeguards at nearby Hamburg Town Beach tried reaching Biehler, but they were unable to.

Weeks earlier, Catherine Winfield Butsch, a 12-year-old girl known as "Caty," died after apparently suffering a medical event while swimming near Fort Erie, Ont. Caty was found unresponsive near Crescent Beach in the late afternoon of July 21. Bystanders and medical personnel tried to resuscitate the girl, but she later died in a Buffalo hospital.

Lake Ontario saw its own share of water-related tragedies this summer with at least three drownings in five weeks, including:

• Stacy Fishbein, 21, of Vaughan, Ont., whose body was recovered July 28 near Olcott.

• Carl F. Hazel, 66, of Albion, who was on a fishing boat that sank Aug. 25 about 9 miles off of the Orleans County shore.

• Daniel Saik, 66, of Niagara Falls, Ont., whose body was recovered Aug. 31 along the lake shoreline in Burt.

In Hazel's case, authorities said he was wearing a life jacket when his boat sank. Hazel and a companion were rescued by another fishing boat, but they'd been in the cold water for about two hours. His companion survived.

Other drownings across the Great Lakes drew international attention.

Former NHL goaltender and Stanley Cup champion Ray Emery died July 15 after he jumped off a boat to go swimming in Lake Ontario's Hamilton Harbor and never resurfaced. The body of Emery, who was a native of Hamilton, was recovered later that afternoon about 60 feet from where he jumped in, according to a CTV News report.

On Aug. 30, a father and his three children drowned in a kayaking accident off a northern Wisconsin shoreline in Lake Superior. The Wisconsin family of five had launched a tandem kayak that afternoon to paddle to an island about 4 miles away, but the kayak capsized. Eric Fryman, 39, his two daughters, Kyra, 9, and Annaliese, 5, as well as his 3-year-old son, Jansen, drowned. The children's mother, Cari Mews-Fryman, 29, was later rescued by a passing ship captain, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Think safety, be safe

Each drowning occurs because of its own set of circumstances, but experts say many of the tragedies are preventable.

The Coast Guard encourages anyone who plans to use a watercraft – whether a boat, Jet Ski, kayak or canoe – to seek the appropriate training first.

"Boater safety courses are one of the most important things you should do before heading out on a boat," Maxey said.

Two other important tips from the Coast Guard: avoid alcohol and wear a life jacket.

"Wearing a life jacket is really important," said Marty Denecke, the town of Hamburg's director of youth, recreation and senior services.

Because of the number of boats, kayaks, Jet Skis and paddle-boats in the lake off of Hamburg's shoreline, Denecke said the town takes extra precautions and stations some crew along the shoreline even when swimming at the town's beach is closed.

"Surveying of the water, whether we are open or closed for swimming, is standard operating procedure," Denecke said. "We don't want it to happen on our watch. We take it very seriously."

And even with that vigilance, tragedy struck twice this summer off of Hamburg's shore.

Dave Benjamin, executive director of public relations and project management for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said family members who have lost a loved one often talk about how the drowning victim was physically fit and a good swimmer. Such was the case with Biehler, the Hamburg kite-surfer.

"Good swimmers drown," Benjamin said. "Knowing how to swim is not enough; you need to know how to survive."

Did you know?

Benjamin's regional nonprofit organization tries to prevent drownings through education and has tracked fatalities on all five lakes dating back to 2010. It's the only organization collecting data for all drownings across all of the Great Lakes.

Benjamin gets people to think about water safety with a simple question: "Can you swim?"

Then he takes them through a series of common sense questions, including "What do you do if your clothes catch fire?" and "What number do you call in an emergency?"

Nearly all of the 30,000 people the organization surveyed knew the answers to those simple questions, and 90 percent of them knew how to swim.

The third question Benjamin asks stumps almost everyone: "What do you do if you're drowning?"

"We're not often playing with fire, but we are often playing in water," Benjamin said.

That's where the need for education comes in.

"Water safety is not common sense, but people assume it's common sense," Benjamin said. "There's a stigma of drowning. People blame the victim."

Benjamin added: "That's getting in the way of getting funding for public education. Drowning is a public health issue, and it's not treated like a public health issue."

So, what do you do if you're drowning?

"We call it the 'flip, float and follow,'" Benjamin said, comparing it to the advice for if clothes catch fire. "It's like the 'stop, drop and roll' of water safety."

If you find yourself in deep water, the Surf Rescue Project recommends flipping over onto your back, floating or treading water with your head above the water and following a safe path out of the water.

The key is not panicking. Panic can trigger a set of physical symptoms – like shortness of breath and tightness in the chest – that can actually work against survival.

"When someone gets in trouble in the water, they have a panic attack," Benjamin said. "It's a fight to survive, and they exhaust themselves.

"Do the opposite of your instincts. If you don't get your breathing under control, you're not going to survive."

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