The drowning death of 15-year-old Tyler Buczek over Labor Day weekend shook the Port Washington community, but now city members are pulling together in an effort to offer waterfront safety and education and prevent another Lake Michigan death.
"Thank you everybody for being here," said Tyler's uncle Jim Buczek while introducing himself at the first meeting of the city's Waterfront Safety Ad-hoc Committee on Wednesday night. "I lived in Port Washington my whole life and every summer, I did exactly what Tyler did: We went down to the beach, we swam; the bigger the waves — the more fun we had.
"If we can save just one life in memory of Tyler. … We want to make sure it doesn't happen again … we want to make sure he's never forgotten, and we just want to make the waters safe for everybody."
Mayor Tom Mlada formed the committee after receiving feedback from residents interested in helping out since the tragedy. He started Wednesday night's meeting with a moment of silence for Tyler.
"(Use this moment) to reflect upon ... what brings us together here tonight – in Tyler’s memory … the tragedy that did happen back here in September," he said.
Boy Scout Max Noll attended the meeting with his father in hopes of finding a way to help.
"I knew Tyler very well, I was present at the beach when he disappeared … and I just hope to make this my Eagle Scout project and help in any way I can."
That kind of passion was evidenced all around the room.
"It's all very close to my heart, and I am looking forward to seeing some safety procedures so no other child will ever have to have this happen," said Mary Ann Voigt, owner of Dockside Deli — where Tyler worked and his mother, Kim, is employed.
"I have a response background, I spent many years on a fire department and I'm sick and tired of always going out on the waterways and doing what we had to do over this holiday … prevention is where we need to be," said Mark Owen, Emergency Management Director for Ozaukee County.
"We never want to go through this again. … Tyler was a tremendous loss, but earlier in the spring we lost another former TJ student to kayaking — water safety (affects) all our kids," said Thomas Jefferson Middle School Principal Arlan Galarowicz said.
Breaking it down
The committee plans to focus on four specific areas, with subcommitees formed for each area. The topics include:
- Signage and safety equipment
- Education and prevention
- A memorial effort
The group spent Wednesday night brainstorming, and came up with some long lists.
Among the ideas for signage and safety equipment are:
- Signage along the rocks on North Beach explaining the dangerous currents created by the structure.
- Signage about rip currents in general.
- Similar information about currents and the lake's dangers posted on the city's website or in the newsletter.
- An aerial photo of the beach area that can then be used to draw up where dangerous currents typically occur.
- Educational brochures available at local businesses, the marina, etc.
- A flag system on the beach.
- A designated swimming area to provide a visual for people in and out of the water.
- Cell towers on the beach — such as those that are used in Sheboygan — that give police the caller's exact location as soon as the call is placed.
Among the ideas for education and prevention are:
- From a responders' perspective, teaching people on the beach to pay attention to where the victim was last seen.
- City-wide awareness night at the bandshell in Veteran's Memorial Park.
- Showing educational clips before free Friday night movies at the bandshell.
- A town hall type discussion with various presenters related to water safety.
- A water safety awareness week.
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The group is also keeping in mind that it is not just North Beach where these safety and educational measures need to take place.
"I think when we talk about this as … community safety, we have to keep in mind that we have multiple places that we can get ourselves in trouble down at the water," said Kevin Rudser, Port resident and one of the leading group members. Rudser proposed five main areas of focus that he sees: North Beach, the breakwall entry by New Port Shores, Rotary Park, the new Coal Dock Park and South Beach.
It's also important for the committee to remember why they came together, Mlada said, and that is why part of its focus will be a memorial effort for Tyler.
Jim Buczek said Tyler's parents are very afraid their son and this tragedy will be forgotten as time passes.
"They don't want that to happen not only from the memory of their son but also from the standpoint of not wanting that to happen again," Jim said. He suggested a sign placed along the paved path to the beach with a plaque that describes what happened.
Mlada said he's heard from residents interested in having some sort of a pavilion at South Beach, and wondered whether fundraising efforts could help make that happen — and then that area could be named in Tyler's honor.
"And now you have something where family gathers, and it's a really special place — and now you have that affiliated with him," Mlada said.
And some memorial efforts are under way: Jim Buczek said Port Washington High School will honor Tyler on Friday. An anchor was placed at one of the end zones of the school's football field earlier this year, with the idea that senior team members would place chain link on the anchor and it would build up over time. The first chain link will be placed Friday in honor of Tyler.
Galarowicz said the middle school has also added an annual Tyler Buczek award that will recognize a boy and girl student who demostrate tremendous character as Tyler had.
Despite the warm weather that lingered throughout the month of September, Mlada said his kids never returned to the beach after learning of Tyler's death. They were too scared, Mlada said.
As a parent, Mlada said it was hard to react to this from his kids — and he hopes this committee will reverse such feelings.
"You don’t need to fear the water, you need to respect the water," he said.
Becky Perez, another group leader, said she was motivated to get involved in this cause because of how often her family utilizes Lake Michigan — and how little they really know about its dangers.
"We just can't be the only parents who feel uneducated when it comes to the magnitude of Lake Michigan," she said.
The subcommitees will meet in November and another large group meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 5 at First Congregational Church. Mlada is hopeful the group will come up with some unified ideas to present to the Common Council for approval in spring.