Chesterton Tribune

Lakeland Park tragedy: Third sister dies; fund set for family

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Esther Niebauer has died.

The 14-year-old Burns Harbor girl, sister of Thursday’s two drowning victims, 8-year-old Miriam and 13-year-old Naomi, succumbed on Saturday after being removed from life support, a University of Chicago Hospital spokesperson told the Chesterton Tribune today.

The Niebauer Family Fund has been established at Centier Bank and Dunelanders can make a contribution at any branch. They may also send sympathy cards to the family at Niebauer Family, C/O Shadyside MHP, 18 Oak Leaf Lane, Chesterton, IN 46304, or otherwise leave them at the Shadyside MHP Office or the Burns Harbor Police Department.

Burns Harbor Town Council Member Mike Perrine, R-1st, a friend of the Niebauers, released this statement today on behalf of them:

“The Niebauer family wishes to thank all the emergency response personnel and agencies that responded to the tragedy that occurred involving their daughters at Lakeland Park in the Town of Burns Harbor. Their professionalism and caring attitudes will always be remembered.

“The sympathy and regard shown by the members of the community for the family during this time of grief is appreciated more than words can express. Their sincere and heartfelt thanks go out to all who have been so thoughtful during this time of sorrow.”

Meanwhile, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources has completed its report of the incident, and a slightly clearer picture has emerged of what happened at around 4 p.m. on Thursday at Lakeland Park.

For one thing, Conservation Officer Gene Davis said, the lifeguard who had been on duty that afternoon left before the girls, their mother Valerie, their 11-year-old sister Hannah, and their 17-year-old brother Nathan arrived.

The Tribune reported on Friday that there had been an overlap of approximately 15 minutes after the family’s arrival and before the lifeguard’s departure, but Davis said this morning that the DNR has learned that inclement weather prompted the lifeguard to leave his post before the Niebauers entered the park and that the lifeguard had left the beach clear.

At least two signs are posted at Lakeland Park warning visitors to swim at their own risk when a lifeguard is not on duty—one on the gate at the entrance and one on the ramp leading to the water—and Davis noted that the town “is not required by state law to maintain lifeguards there.” The park was scheduled to close at 9 p.m. on Thursday.

It will probably never be known which of the three girls first encountered difficulty as they were playing within the designated swimming area marked by a line of buoys, Davis said. One of them did, however, apparently slipping into deeper water from a precipitous drop-off which goes from a depth of around three to four feet to a depth of 10 feet. Her two sisters then attempted to rescue her and encountered the same difficulty.

Esther, Miriam, and Naomi were underwater between 18 and 20 minutes before being recovered in a desperate rescue operation conducted by free-diving Burns Harbor and Porter firefighters and police officers.

Davis said that the one of the three sisters was described as a “weak” or “poor” swimmer and that the other two “couldn’t swim at all,” that Valerie Niebauer was also a non-swimmer, and that Nathan was similarly a weak or poor swimmer.

DNR divers subsequently conducted a search of the area and found weeds growing there but at a distance of seven feet from the surface, Davis said, too far below to have been a contributing factor in the tragedy.

Davis did say that both he and investigating Conservation Officer Bob Kaufmann concur that it would be a “wise idea” for the Town of Burns Harbor to lay another buoy line within the outer one and inside the drop-off. He added, though, that the DNR report makes no such official recommendation and that Lakeland Park is not within its jurisdiction.

“Town officials and the Town Council have had preliminary discussions on possible additional safety measures,” Burns Harbor Town Attorney Bob Welsh said.

Burns Harbor Park Board Member and volunteer firefighter Wally Macchiarella said that Lakeland Park has re-opened but that it is currently closed to swimming.


Posted 8/15/2005