Matt Burns made his first trip to Michigan City three years ago. He was lured by the fishing opportunities provided by the big lake. “I heard about the huge salmon but catching a Skamania steelhead really peaked my interest,” said the lifelong fisherman. Little did he know his love of angling opportunities would lead to something completely unexpected and something he hopes never to live through again.
Burns loves everything about the northern Indiana area including fishing, miles of sand beaches, ample public access sites and a city with many recreational and social activities. It was on August 6th he decided to take his girlfriend Michelle Langston for a motorcycle ride to the northern Indiana city to spend the day on the beach, as a way to escape this summer’s sweltering heat.
Arriving at Washington Park, Burns wasted no time getting into the water. “It was extremely hot and I just wanted to get wet,” said the 39 year-old Russiaville resident. “The lake was rough and looked like the ocean with huge waves rolling in,” he explained.
Burns quickly made his way into approximately four feet of water and enjoyed the respite from the heat it provided. Within a few minutes people around him began screaming and pointing away from shore where thousands lined the public beach. “There are kids drowning out there,” he heard someone yell.
He then noticed several others trying to help and make their way past the breaking waves only to be pushed back. “I felt I had to do something,” said the Chrysler Casting Plant employee.
As a lifelong swimmer who stands over six feet, weighing nearly 250 pounds, he powered his way 100 yards out from shore through the pounding surf. “I would swim under the waves as they broke,” Burns explained. Reaching water over 10 feet deep he noticed something under the roiling surface. This was miraculous in itself as Burns was not wearing his glasses, which he needs to see clearly.
He immediately dove down and grabbed what he thought at first was some type of debris. “As soon as I grabbed it I knew it was skin,” he explained. “I kept feeling until I could grab cloth, something I could hold onto to get her to the top.” Upon reaching the surface Burns held the lifeless body of a 14 year-old girl. He immediately rolled her onto her back while keeping her head out of the water. It was a teenager that originally tried to save two young boys on a small raft who had accidentally been pulled out into deep water by the lake’s strong undertow.
“I thought for sure she was dead,” he continued. “She was unconscious and her lips were blue.” In what seemed like an eternity, but in reality only a matter of minutes, a lifeguard arrived taking the girl. It was at that point Burns realized he too was now in trouble. “I was out of breath and we were getting battered by the waves and it felt just like being in a washing machine,” he said. “It was at that point I thought I was going to drown.” Thankfully another lifeguard soon arrived giving the Russiaville resident a safety buoy. “When I reached shallower water I was never so glad to feel my feet touch bottom,” said Burns.
Resuscitation efforts began as soon as the lifeguards reached shore with the young girl. While she was being treated, the limp body of one of the young boys washed up under the surf among a wail of grief coming from hundreds of beachgoers that witnessed it. EMS paramedics were now on the scene and began emergency lifesaving efforts. “The beach was in pandemonium,” said Langston, who witnessed the scene unfold.
“Even though they survived, it was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen or been involved with,” Burns said solemnly. “You know there are a lot of people who have died trying to save others,” I mentioned during our interview. “I know,” he said, “I just reacted. But when it comes to kids that need help I am going to do whatever it takes. If those were my children I’d want someone to try and help them.”
As the children were being transported to the hospital by ambulance and helicopter, Burns and Langston slowly began picking up their belongings. They made their way to a small pavilion located on the outer fringes of the park. There, Burns laid on the ground gaining his composure and catching his breath. “People all over the beach were coming up to me saying I was a hero and thanking me,” he explained. “But I did what anybody in my position would have done,” he said adamantly.
That day alone, eight people nearly drowned in the waters off Washington Park, including the 14 year old girl who was pulled under while trying to assist others. Information released by Capt. Buddy Kasinger, public information officer for LaPorte County EMS said all survived yet several were still in the hospital listed in stable condition. This highlights the possible dangers and safety precautions needed when venturing into any waters, especially those of the Great Lakes.
Because of his original love of fishing, Burns was put in a situation where he valiantly put his own safety aside to help others, people he didn’t even know. Thankfully everyone survived and we too consider Burns an unsung hero.