Marty Jordan held tight to his family as the waves crashed around him. He was all they had standing between them and death. And he had to give everything to keep them from it.
The will behind the effort came from a life dedicated to helping others survive. Even as a child, his nine siblings agreed Marty Jordan, of St. Charles, had the biggest heart of all of them. That heart manifested into a career as a social worker for 25 years, helping countless people navigate the obstacles in their lives. As deep, churning waters of a Lake Michigan rip current sucked them farther and farther from shore it was his own family who called on that heart.
The day began as the climax to a family vacation in South Haven, Mich. Several members of the Jordan clan were there, including Jordan's sister, Mary, of Streamwood, and his brother, Dan, of Oak Park. They had all brought their children, 10 total, to a classic baseball game played under turn-of-the-century rules. The game was played on a field that overlooked a beach with a pier that stretched far out into Lake Michigan. It was a beach all of the family had been to many times during years of vacations, making it a natural destination for the end of the day.
The families set up in the sand about 75 yards away from the pier. It had been drizzling rain much of the day, but now the skies were clear. Only a gusting wind remained, hitting speeds of 30 mph.
Beaches and water, plus young children, make it almost impossible to stay out of the water. In fact, there were dozens of people also on the beach who were already in - or had been in - the water. Earlier in the day, local rescue officials had been called twice to help pull people out of a powerful rip current near the pier. But Jordan and his family knew nothing about it.
There were no lifeguards present and signs posted about possible rip currents at various points on the beach were not seen by Jordan and his family, nor witnesses interviewed about the incident. So Marty Jordan, 45, headed out into the waves. With him were five children: his 9-year-old son, Jack Patrick Jordan; three nieces (Lauren Gaborek, 16; Jordan Mattas, 9, and Cami Jordan, 11), and one nephew, 8-year-old Jack William Jordan.
It was all fun at first. Having been there many times before, the kids all knew to stay away from the pier for fear of being tossed into it by a wave. But on this day, the lake waters did not give them the option. The gusting winds spawned waves larger than the children were accustomed to. The swelling water soon sucked Marty Jordan and the children closer and closer while pushing them farther out into the lake. At first the pull was mild, then a jet stream of water began to work on them. As it became clear they were in trouble, Marty Jordan bellowed, "You need to help us!" But it was so windy, his relatives on the beach could not hear him. Soon, they were so close to the pier it became as much of a rescue option as it was a threat. Bystanders who could see the danger tossed life preservers into the water. Seeing that, Scott Mattas, of Streamwood, Jordan's brother-in-law, ran into the water to help.
The youngest of all, Jack William, was in the most trouble. With little weight or swimming strength to anchor him, the foamy waves yanked the 8-year-old out into the lake faster. His sister, Lauren, already in the water, latched onto him and fought her way toward the pier, collecting Jordan Mattas along the way. They were able to make their way to a ladder at the pier where bystanders began hoisting them out of the water.
Meanwhile, Marty Jordan was in a fight of his own. He'd managed to catch hold of his son and his niece, Cami. "Hold on for your lives," he told the children as he began his own exhausting swim to the pier with the two bigger children in tow.
On the beach, Marty Jordan's brother, Dan, called 911. The rest of the family, including Marty's wife, Maureen, huddled as they watched and prayed. "We were hoping for a miracle," Dan Jordan said.
As the children reached the ladder of the pier they looked back. Marty Jordan, their dad and uncle, disappeared under the waves with a last push of the children onto the ladder.
A bystander jumped in the water to help him. Marty Jordan stretched out and hooked his fingers around the ladder, but the waves knocked him loose. When he surfaced again, Jordan was unconscious. Rescue workers arrived and pulled him out of the water. But it was too late. The children were safe, but the hero was gone.
"We were all there having a good time, then, within seconds, it all changed," Dan Jordan said. "It became the worst day of our lives. We watched the worst event you can imagine."
South Haven Community Hospital pronounced Marty Jordan dead less than two hours after the family arrived at the beach. He leaves behind his wife, his oldest son Jack, his 5-year-old son, Liam, and his 4-year-old daughter, Caroline.
Funeral services were still being arranged late Monday afternoon.