Jerry Davich: ‘I think Corey would be proud of me’
Jerry Davich email@example.com August 27, 2012 9:00AM
A leg tattoo features the names Christine Forytek's two children Corey and Kristte. Corey, 15, drowned in July while swimming Lake Michigan in Portage. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Christine Forystek was in New Buffalo, Mich., when she got the phone call she’ll never forget on July 8. Her 15-year-old son, Corey McFry, had disappeared in Lake Michigan waters.
She immediately raced to the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Park where Corey and his friends were swimming, as they did often this past summer.
“It was the longest drive of my life,” she told me.
Once Forystek arrived at the beach and she saw the lake’s choppy, angry waves, she knew in her heart that her son would not be swimming to safety. She broke down several times as rescue personnel searched for her son.
“As a mom, I just knew it would not have a happy outcome. I had a bad, bad feeling,” she said. “He was an OK swimmer, but he didn’t know anything about rip currents.”
That same day, I just happened to be walking along the beach near that popular public-access site after watching the tail end of the Gary South Shore Air Show. As jets exited the friendly skies, I was surprised to see swimmers bobbing in the unfriendly waters, well off the shore.
Further down the shoreline, near West Beach, two lifeguards told swimmers to get out of the water after rip current warnings were put into effect. But there are no lifeguards at the Riverwalk and most other beaches.
“We’re surrounded by water in this region, but too many kids have no idea how to swim safely in a rip current,” said Forystek, who stayed at the beach late that evening until officials told her to return home.
After an extensive two-day search, Corey’s body was located along the shore of Ogden Dunes. Minutes later that day, Forystek received another unforgettable phone call. Her boy was found, and a proper burial could be held.
Corey was a member of the Boys and Girls Club of South Haven, and an incoming freshman at Portage High School. He would have started classes last week along with his friends.
“Today was a bad day for me,” Forystek told me on the day her son would have started high school.
Corey’s funeral on July 13 was held at Pruzin Brothers Funeral Service in Portage, where hundreds of people paid their respects.
“I didn’t know so many people even knew Corey, including so many of his friends,” Forystek said from the kitchen table of her Portage town house. “Now they’re my last link to Corey.”
From tragedy to crusade
On the day of my visit, she later visited Corey’s grave at McCool Cemetery in Portage, where she visits often to chat with her son and spruce up his flowers.
“It’s easier going to his gravesite than it is going back to that beach,” she said, referring to the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Park.
She’s been back to that beach where Corey disappeared only once since his death, and she suffered from panic attacks after watching kids swimming carelessly in the water.
“I had to leave. It really got to me,” she said. “Lake Michigan doesn’t care if you’re an OK swimmer or an Olympic swimmer. It’s a merciless lake.”
Corey became the 41st person to drown in the Great Lakes this year alone. Since his death, dozens more have perished under the water.
This is why Forystek made the decision to turn her tragedy into a crusade in honor of her son, who she described as a “typical teenager with typical things he liked to do,” such as playing music, video games, skateboarding and hanging with his friends.
Amazingly, just over a month after Corey’s death, Forystek returned to New Buffalo to co-host a “Water Safety Surf Rescue” class along with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. She learned about the organization at Bluebird Tattoo shop in Portage while posting fliers for an upcoming fundraising benefit to help pay for Corey’s funeral.
“I was surprised that there is already an organization doing what I now think is badly needed for our kids,” she said.
Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, also just happened to be at that beach on the day Corey disappeared. He chronicled the rescue effort and later contacted me. The Matteson, Ill., man has been swimming in Lake Michigan for 42 years, and he co-founded the organization after surviving a near drowning accident.
“Everyone who enters the Great Lakes should know about the ‘Flip, Float, and Follow’ rip current survival campaign,” he said. “As long as are floating you are alive.”
The eventual goal of the Michigan Sea Grant’s “Flip, Float, Follow” rip current survival strategy is to develop a national curriculum similar to the Fire Prevention Services’ “Stop, Drop and Roll” program.
“Ask anyone anywhere in the United States and they probably know ‘Stop, Drop and Roll,’ ” he noted, hoping “Flip, Float, Follow” can catch on as well.
Forystek, who has a 20-year-old daughter and 16-month-old grandson, said, “I wish I would have known about this program, and Corey, too, so he would have at least had a chance.”
Her goal is to talk to local school boards to allow the “Flip, Float, and Follow” program to be taught in schools.
“If we educate only one child, and save just one life, it will all be worth it,” she said. “We must push the awareness on this very serious issue. I want kids to know to not panic and what actions to take to save their lives.”
Mark McGregor, Forystek’s fiancé, added, “Corey didn’t know what to do.”
Chris Swanson also contacted me about this issue, saying he is attempting to also put a program in place that will “significantly reduce the number of fatalities while people are enjoying our beautiful beaches.” The proposed “Swimsafe Technologies” system would be launched as a pilot program in Michigan City, and possibly Porter or New Buffalo, by next summer. (Contact Swanson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 575-3965.)
“I would like to raise money so I can conduct testing before fall,” he said.
In the meantime, Forystek is planning a formal vigil for Corey on Sept. 9 at Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Park. Everyone is welcome to attend.
“I think by doing this it helps me cope with things, and with his death,” she explained. “I think Corey would be proud of me.”
Listen to more insights from Christine Forystek on Jerry’s “Out to Lunch” radio show today at noon on WVLP, 98.3-FM, streaming online at www.wvlp.org.