Patricia Mason-Levasseur’s end-of-summer reflection carries a heavy heart, as she recalls her husband’s tragic drowning at a private beach in Lake Erie back in 2016. She has since been advocating for mandatory warning signs on private beaches, emphasizing the potential dangers posed by high winds and rip currents.
A Heartbreaking Tragedy
On July 22, 2016, Mason-Levasseur’s husband, Patrick Keith, met with a tragic end at a private beach near their home in Crystal Beach, a part of the Fort Erie municipality. Witnesses reported seeing Keith standing waist-deep in water before he suddenly went under. Despite the evident windy conditions, there were no signs warning beachgoers of potential hazards, and no lifeguard was present to assist.
“It still triggers all the feelings of that day… you know, I guess you call it PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Mason-Levasseur confided to CBC Hamilton. “Every time something like this happens it brings it all back.”
A Quest for Answers
Seeking to understand the factors contributing to Keith’s death, Mason-Levasseur commissioned Dr. Chris Houser, a coastal geomorphologist from the University of Waterloo. Houser’s findings indicated that the conditions at the time of the drowning were consistent with incidents that led to the deaths of surfers in the Great Lakes between 2010 and 2017.
“Based on the waves and currents observed… it is reasonable to expect that a dangerous current was present at the time of drowning,” Houser noted in his report.
Growing Concerns Over Beach Safety
Since Keith’s tragic accident, Mason-Levasseur said there have been at least two more drowning incidents in the Crystal Beach area. She criticized local developers and private beach owners for neglecting to put up hazard signs or warnings about dangerous conditions.
“I just think that there’s more that private beaches and owners need to do to let people know that these conditions are possible, and not blaming victims,” expressed Mason-Levasseur.
In 2018, Mason-Levasseur filed a lawsuit against developer Marz Homes, seeking $2 million in damages, alleging negligence including the “failure to place signage at or near the premises.”
Marz Homes responded, with project Manager Dani Gabriele stating, “Marz Homes does not and has never owned any beaches in Crystal Beach.” However, when asked about the allegations, Gabriele commented, “Marz Homes has no further comment.”
Mixed Views on Regulation
Mayor Wayne Redekop of Fort Erie acknowledged the challenges in regulating private and public waterfront areas. While he emphasized the importance of safety, he also noted the liability of property owners. “If you’re a property owner, you should make sure that your property was safe,” Redekop stated. However, he added that mandating signage on private property would necessitate public consultation.
Growing Numbers, Growing Concern
According to data from the U.S.-based Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, 269 people have drowned in Lake Erie from 2010 to September 2023. Dave Benjamin, the organization’s executive director, emphasized the importance of educating the public about potential dangers, advocating for beach hazard signs, public rescue equipment, and 911 call boxes.
“Absolutely, there should be beach hazard signage … strategically placed where the rip currents or dangerous currents may happen,” Benjamin stressed.
Hope for a Safer Future
Stephanie Backalar from the Life Saving Society of Ontario believes that waterfront owners should adhere to their organization’s guidelines to ensure safety. “It is our hope that these owners and operators will go above and beyond… this includes posting of required signage and supplementary signage that may save a life,” said Backalar.
The common sentiment, shared by many, remains clear: beaches, whether private or public, need to prioritize safety to prevent such tragic events in the future.