First part of a series
In her family’s backyard overlooking Lake Erie, Melissa Zirkle watched as her son Jermaine joined some friends in the water. On that July day in 2013, she was building steps in the backyard.
“I kept looking and checking on him, and he was standing in the water and he was laughing, having fun with the other kids,” Zirkle says, recalling the scene along Ohio's shoreline. “Then about two minutes later, I heard cries for help.”
Jermaine was 14 and knew how to swim, but he got caught in a strong current near a structure that juts out into the water.
“Two of the other kids tried to help and they just couldn’t keep a hold of him through all that,” Zirkle says. “So he went under and he was missing for three days.”
The U.S. Coast Guard and water rescue teams from the Ashtabula area joined in the 60-hour search -- a period she describes as a “nightmare.” Jermaine’s body resurfaced shortly after the search was called off.
Jermaine was among the many people who have drowned in the Great Lakes as a result of dangerous currents. Since 2000 there have been more than 150 drownings -- and hundreds more resscues -- related to lake currents. The currents, which can appear suddenly, are just like those found along ocean beaches.
“Jermaine was always very smart, very inquisitive," Zirkle says. "He always wanted an explanation for everything. He had dreams of going to Harvard. Those dreams started when he was about 7, he wanted to go to Harvard. He was just very funny, he liked to tell jokes, he liked to make faces, he liked to do silly things with his Afro just to make people laugh."
Zirkle grew up near Lake Erie but never learned about the dangerous currents. Like many people, she didn’t know about structural currents that develop along piers. Or about rip currents that form in a break in a sandbar. Both can quickly pull people into deep water.
And after Jermaine died, she hated the lake -- until she refocused that hate into ambition.
“I set a new goal and that was to educate as many people as I could about water safety and rip currents and structural currents and Lake Erie in general,” Zirkle says.
Now she’s a board member of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which teaches water safety classes and trains lifeguards. “There’s so many things that I wish I had known before Jermaine’s accident,” she says. “It could have been prevented.”
She’s also extremely careful when it comes to the safety of her other son, Quandrel, who is 15 years old.
“We don’t go in the water without life jackets ever. We do walk along the shore, but he knows we don’t go in without lifejackets,” she says. “We have a canoe. We only go out when it’s very calm and we don’t go out far.”
Her newest goal is to put warning signs about dangerous currents up at her private beach. She also wants to reach out to both private and public beaches about having life jacket loaner stations.
These days she lives in the house on Lake Erie -- the site of her son’s death.
“I like the lake. I like the calmness and since Jermaine’s accident, I kind of have a new peace here. I feel closer to him here,” Zirkle says. “My heart is here.”
And here she holds an annual ceremony on the date Jermaine drowned. She calls it an “angel-versary.” This year, 30 or so guests attended the event, including family and friends of Jermaine.
"We gather, we say prayer, and then we throw flowers in the water where he went in,” Zirkle says, describing the event. “It’s just a nice way to get together and remember Jermaine, and talk about his life, and share memories.”
Zirkle carries her own memories of Jermaine every day. Around her neck she wears a glass locket with his picture on one side and a lock of his hair on the other.