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Vickroy: In son’s memory, couple team with water safety experts to educate teens

John Kathy Kocher lost their sstudent Andrew who drowned while swimming Lake Michigan. John Kathy now work with GreLakes Surf

John and Kathy Kocher lost their son, a student at Andrew, who drowned while swimming in Lake Michigan. John and Kathy now work with Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project to help rasie awareness for water safety for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project presentation at Andrew High School, Wednesday, May 7th, 2014 in Tinley Park. | Gary Middendorf/for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 10, 2014 6:28AM



Matthew Kocher was wading in water no higher than his waist last July when he was caught in a rip current and carried farther out into Lake Michigan.

The 6-foot-4 inch three-sport athlete at Andrew High School died hours after being rescued at a beach in New Buffalo, Mich.

The drowning devastated all who knew the 15-year-old honor student who had been helping with a church camp while at the beach. It also left his parents to wonder how differently things might have turned out had Matt known fully the perils that lurk at the south end of Lake Michigan.

“He was close to shore,” Kathy Kocher said. “Friends said he was pulled backwards.”

“People don’t understand what a rip current is and what it can do,” John Kocher said.

In Matt’s memory, and to help others avoid similar tragedies, the Kochers teamed up with Bob Pratt and Dave Benjamin, of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit that is a chapter of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, to bring water safety education to students at Andrew High School in Tinley Park Wednesday.

Principal Bob Nolting said, “Our school has been hit by a tragedy. The message now is not about what happened, it’s about what we need to know to prevent it from happening again.”

He said he hopes students realize that swimming in a controlled pool is very different from swimming in Lake Michigan.

Dr. James Gay, superintendent of District 230, said schools are mandated to do a lot of safety drills for students. “With us being so close to Lake Michigan and with so many kids going to vacation homes there or to the Dunes, this is a great opportunity for us to share information about some of the dangers involving water.”

During the presentation, Pratt shared some alarming statistics as well as some simple, practical advice for what to do if you find yourself drowning.

Since 2010, Pratt said, 340 people have drowned in the Great Lakes, half of them in Lake Michigan, and half of those drownings occurring at the lake’s southern end.

“People don’t realize the southern part of Lake Michigan is one the most dangerous bodies of water on the face of the earth,” Pratt said.

Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children under 15, Pratt said. It kills more people than fire, tornadoes and lightning combined, he said.

In his 10 years as Fire Marshall in East Lansing, Mich., Pratt said, “There were zero fire deaths but three drownings.”

He said 80 percent of rescues at surf beaches are due to rip currents, strong channels of water that can form at piers and other structures as well as along the uneven bottom of the lake. Rips can occur in waves that are just one to two feet, he added.

“Males are four times more likely to drown than females,” Pratt said, because they go to the beach more and they tend to overestimate their swimming ability by 50 percent. But even strong athletic people often lose to a current, Pratt said.

“Think of the current as a treadmill,” he said. “You can’t beat a treadmill.”

Instead of fighting a current, Pratt said, a more effective way to reserve strength until help arrives is to remember a simple phrase: Flip, Float, Follow.

“First of all, don’t panic; it doesn’t help the situation at all,” Pratt said.

Flipping onto your back, he said, gets your mouth out of the water.

Floating enables you to save energy and to see where you’re heading, he said.

And following means you will not be fighting the current but going with it, buying time for rescuers to get to you.

Pratt also told the students how to recognize when another swimmer is in trouble, and what to do about it.

“There have been 10 drownings on the Great Lakes so far this year, the latest a would-be rescuer,” he said. “So be very careful before deciding to rescue somebody.”

Drowning, he added, is often swift and silent and the signs are not at all what you’d think.

“Head back, mouth open, hair in the face or a look of panic. That’s what drowning looks like. Facing shore, vertical in the water. We call it climbing the ladder,” he said. “You’re not going to see waving or hear yelling in most cases.”

And, he added, “Unless you’re a lifeguard or trained professional you have no business going out in the water.”

But there are things you can do to help that person. First, call for help and know the location so that rescuers can get there as soon as possible. Toss the person in trouble a throw ring, throw rope, an empty cooler, or anything that can double as a flotation device.

After the presentation, Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki thanked the Kochers for helping to educate teens.

“It’s amazing, people don’t realize how fast it can happen,” said Zabrocki, whose oldest granddaughter was grabbed by her father after she unknowingly drifted out while wading near Saugatuck, Michigan, last summer.

Megan Hofer, a senior at Andrew who has worked as a lifeguard, said she thinks most teens do not appreciate the potential dangerous in the Great Lakes.

Tim Yara, a senior at Andrew who works as a lifeguard at Tinley Park’s White Water Canyon Water Park, said, “You can be the strongest swimmer and still get tied up.”

Matt, the Kocher’s only child would have been a sophomore at Andrew this year. Kathy Kocher believes he would be proud of what his parents are doing in his memory.

“We feel he’d say, ‘Don’t just sit there; Do something,’” she said.

The Kochers hope to bring the water safety program to other schools.

“We’d like to see ‘Flip, Float, Follow’ become a household phrase like ‘Stop, Drop and Roll’ or ‘Click It or Ticket,’” she said. “This is a survival strategy.”

Kathy Kocher, who has yet to return to her nursing job at Mercy Hospital, said, “We find joy in life but we’re so, so sad. We miss him so much. He just loved life. He was destined to go on and do great things. His death was senseless.”

John Kocher, a guidance counselor and coach at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, said, “Each and every day, we laugh and we cry, remembering him.”

For more information on the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, visit http://glsrp.org/



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