CLEVELAND - A group with Cleveland's Positive Education Program set out Monday to enjoy a picnic at the beach. But the rough waters quickly turned their plans of celebration into tragedy.
The group of three teachers and five kids with Pep Hopewell Day Treatment Center arrived to Bay Village's Huntington Beach around 9:45 a.m. for their annual summer picnic. Not long after setting out their belongings and food, four of the five kids headed to cool down in the water.
The teachers watched closely as the children began playing in the waist-deep water. Then, a large wave came crashing down, knocking all four kids underwater. Two boys, who were closer to shore, walked out without needing help.
According to a Cleveland Metroparks Ranger Department report, Laura Recco, 46, jumped into the water, helping one young girl back on her feet. But Recco couldn't find 9-year-old Diamond Harris anywhere.
As one of the teachers called 911 around 10:40 a.m., Recco continued swimming, desperately searching for the young girl.
Cleveland Metroparks lifeguards arrived within minutes of the call for help and spotted Harris. They brought the 9-year-old to shore, where she was semi-conscious, but breathing. Lifeguards said she would be okay.
Then, their attention was quickly turned back to Recco, who was now 100 yards off the shore and seemingly unresponsive. As lifeguard Christian Pesarchick began pulling Recco closer to the beach, trying to fight the strong current, a large wave broke his effort and another lifeguard, Phil Townshed, had to take over the rescue.
Townshed was able to pull Recco to shore, while another lifeguard, Cassie Blossom, rescued Pesarchick.
Once out of the water, CPR was performed on Recco before she was taken to a local hospital.
"(Recco) was unconscious, her skin was gray and ashen, and her eyes were open," explained ranger Michael Kort in his report. He also said his lifeguards were so physically exhausted, one collapsed on the beach.
"There was a rip current warning in effect until 8 p.m. posted online by the National Weather Service," said ranger Kevin Bartley in his report. But it didn't appear there were any warning signs about the rough conditions posted at the Lake Erie beach.
"The water conditions of the lake were high waves, 4-6 feet, with white caps...There were no lifeguards on duty at this time," Bartley added.
Huntington Reservation is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., with lifeguards on duty from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Huntington Beach.
A teacher with Recco's group described the water "as some of the worst" he had seen, adding the undertow was "very bad."
Six lifeguards involved with the rescue were interviewed after the incident. They all said they were exhausted from their rescue efforts, were all concerned about the victims, and all commented on the poor weather conditions.
A sign was posted closing the beach at 11 a.m. that day.
Sadly, Recco died two days later at the hospital. Her family calls her a hero. "The way she died is the perfect display of how selfless she was," said a tearful 23-year-old Angelica Gagliardi, Recco's daughter.
The area where the drowning happened is along the south shore of Lake Erie, beach #2, between two breakwalls.
Funeral arrangements for Recco are pending.
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