A tragic end to an evening swim

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A man and a boy die when four people are separated from their boat four miles out on Lake Michigan

A man and a boy die when four people are separated from their boat four miles out on Lake Michigan

An Antioch, Ill., father is left with more questions than answers after his 10-year-old son died of hypothermia and his soon-to-be ex-wife’s fiancée was lost in August following an evening swim from an anchored boat on Lake Michigan.

“Besides trying to deal with the loss of my son, I can’t understand why he was put in a situation like this in the first place,” says 50-year-old David Emmerling. “I would have been adamantly against my children swimming in Lake Michigan had I known about it.”

At about 5 p.m. Aug. 9, John Semkus, 58, took his fiancée, 42-year-old Phyllis Emmerling, and three of her children for a ride in his 22-foot Maxum on Lake Michigan. Just after sunset Semkus dropped anchor about four miles off Winthrop Harbor, Ill. Phyllis Emmerling and her sons David, 10, and Jeffrey, 9, decided to swim.

“It was pretty hot that day, and we wanted to go for a swim to cool off,” says Phyllis Emmerling.

The water became choppy after about 10 minutes, and the three started drifting away from the boat, according to the children’s mother. Concerned for his fiancée and her boys, Semkus dove into the 65-degree water to help them get back. Phyllis Emmerling’s 7-year-old daughter, Sandra, remained asleep on board.

“We tried swimming back, but it was impossible,” she says. “The waves were so high we couldn’t see the boat. Then John jumped in after us, and he couldn’t get back either. He suggested we swim to shore instead. It was a clear night,” she says, pointing out that although she and Semkus weren’t wearing PFDs, David and Jeffrey were. “We were never in fear. We knew we had to swim. It was what we had to do.”

Semkus apparently became separated from the others, and they lost sight of him. Emmerling and the boys continued swimming toward shore, but the cold water began to take a toll.

“It was probably about 45 minutes before we got to shore, I’d say, when I noticed David was in distress,” Phyllis Emmerling recalls. “He was disoriented. He couldn’t swim. I took him on my back and wrapped his arms and legs around me. I turned to Jeffrey and said, ‘David really needs our help. We have to swim hard.’”

Emmerling says she talked to David throughout the rest of the swim, but he was unresponsive. “He was in and out of consciousness,” she says. “The water was just too cold.”

Emmerling says they swam for nearly nine hours before reaching shore at about 3 a.m. in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. Once on shore, Jeffrey flagged down a newspaper deliveryman who called police for help. Emmerling and her sons were taken to Kenosha Hospital and Medical Center, where David was pronounced dead. At about 4 a.m., the Coast Guard and Lake County sheriff’s marine unit launched a search for Semkus, finding Sandra safe and still asleep on the boat. Emmerling and Jeffrey were treated for hypothermia and released.

An Aug. 11 autopsy determined that David had died of hypothermia. Semkus was presumed dead the next day after authorities called off the search.

David Emmerling, who says he has been going through a “bitter” divorce with Phyllis, says he can’t understand why the incident unfolded the way it did. “The fact that they decided to go swimming four miles from shore in water that’s that cold is just ridiculous,” he says.

Phyllis Emmerling says: “I wouldn’t have done it if I thought it was going to be dangerous.”

The father also wonders why Semkus didn’t start the boat and pick up the swimmers rather than jumping in without a life jacket. “Nothing about the situation makes sense to me,” he says. “There are too many unanswered questions.”

David Emmerling continued: “Each day is a challenge. When you lose a child it’s like you lose a piece of yourself. You can go on and survive but you’ll never be a whole person again.”