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updated: 8/30/2011 4:51 PM

Wheeling drowning victim likely was caught in rip current

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A 44-year-old Wheeling man drowned in Lake Michigan Sunday, pulled under by a rip current while swimming off a Hagar Township Park beach in southwest Michigan, authorities said Monday.

Robert Klepacki was between 50 and 100 yards from shore when he started to struggle, according to Berrien County, Mich. officials. His wife, watching from the beach with her and 4-year-old son, saw him struggling and frantically tried to locate someone with a phone to call 911. By the time she did, Klepacki had disappeared underwater.

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A rescue crew from the North Berrien Fire Department, on their way back after a water rescue training class on the lake, was first to respond to the emergency call, Fire Chief Jim Spiegel said.

"We were lucky to get to the scene so quickly," Spiegel said. "But, unfortunately too much time had passed by the time he was found."

Coast Guard crews spotted the victim floating about 90 minutes later and he was pulled from the water. Attempts to resuscitate Klepacki were unsuccessful.

Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said the National Weather Service had issued warnings of a rip current in the area. Also known also as a rip tide, the powerful current can pull even a strong swimmer away from shore.

Klepacki and his family were on an open beach that is not staffed with lifeguards, Spiegel said. But unstaffed beaches usually have billboards explaining rip currents and their potential dangers, he added.

Beaches that are staffed with lifeguards use a colored flag system to warn swimmers about the level of danger in the water's currents, with red meaning high hazard. The beach where Klepacki and his family were swimming did not use the flag system.

It was the second drowning of the weekend in southwest Michigan, according to local news reports.

"Unfortunately it was one of those days when the weather was nice, but the lake was rough," Heit said.

Visitation for Klepacki will take place from 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Kolbus-John V. May Funeral Home, 6857 W. Higgins Ave. in Chicago. Friday morning there will be prayers at the funeral home before a processional to St. Constance Church. Klepacki will be buried at All Saints Ceremony in Des Plaines.

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