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2021 Michiganians of the Year

Alyssa DeWitt risked her life to save 3 girls from dangerous waves near Lake Michigan shoreline

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Wind-whipped waves washed over the breakwall, soaking Alyssa DeWitt as she reached down with her right hand and its damaged wrist.

Below her was a terrified teenage girl, trying to climb atop a boulder and falling back as another surge slammed her into the stone and concrete of a Lake Michigan barricade in Manistee.

“I’m going to die out here,” the girl shouted.

“No, you’re not,” DeWitt told her, and already face-down on the slick surface, she leaned as far as she could without tumbling into the surf and stretched out her arm once more.

Alyssa Dewitt, Michiganian
Alyssa DeWitt saved three girls from drowning at 1st Street Beach in Manistee.
Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News

It's something many of us have pondered: what would we do if saving someone else meant putting ourselves in peril? For answering that question in the boldest possible terms, a self-described "scrawny, slender mom" is a Detroit News Michiganian of the Year.

DeWitt, 27, pulled three girls out of the frothing water on May 25 and helped an exhausted fourth to shore as she staggered against the tide.

"It could have been disastrous," said Manistee fire Capt. John Peddie, who responded to a frenzied, muddled 911 call on a 79-degree day when the wind and surf were so loud DeWitt could only pray she had been understood. "Everybody was scared, shocked, crying, covered in sand."

And alive, for reasons DeWitt can only call providential.

She was five months pregnant as she sat with her kids in her blue Dodge minivan that day, debating whether to go to 1st Street Beach or give up and stay home. A friend had already texted, saying she had been there but was driven off by airborne sand.

Briar, 6, Cleo, almost 4, and the girls’ brother Castle, 2, "a spitfire," love the beach on breezy days. “They like to splash their feet in the water and run away from the waves,” DeWitt said.

Alyssa DeWitt, 27, of Manistee, walks the 1st Street Beach Pier in Manistee on Lake Michigan, the beach where she saved the lives of three young girls in May.
Alyssa DeWitt, 27, of Manistee, walks the 1st Street Beach Pier in Manistee on Lake Michigan, the beach where she saved the lives of three young girls in May. Clarence Tabb Jr., Detroit News

So she turned the key and drove to the beach and — another coin flip of fate — she steered rightward into the small parking lot near the pier, where she rarely goes, instead of left toward the snack shop and bathrooms.

On that stretch of waterfront, she noticed the only other people nearby, the girls aged 6 to 15, walking from the protected side of the breakwall into the lake side.

She thought to herself, “They’re kind of far out there for these kinds of conditions.” And then she looked again and saw what turned out to be the oldest of the group, frantically waving her arms.

"Stay right here," she told her kids, but of course they didn't. With Briar restraining Castle, they watched from the sand just off the breakwall as their mom, her wrist fused by surgeries for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, sprinted toward danger.

"By the time I got out there, the girls were exhausted," she said. An undertow was pushing them away from shore and the waves were slamming them into the wall, "and they were yelling to me that one of the girls kept passing out and just floating."

But she pulled the oldest girl out and then the most panicked and then the last. Rescuers, at first dispatched to the wrong beach, arrived with blankets and stethoscopes and soothing words. DeWitt, back in the van with the kids, dialed her husband, Jared, who had planned to meet them there.

Don't bother, she said. We're coming home. Oh, and I just saved three lives.

In the months since, the city has used the incident as teaching tool for water safety. DeWitt delivered son Arrow in mid-September, six weeks early. Castle is still a handful. And DeWitt remains grateful to have been in the right place at the right time, ready to do the right thing.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: nealrubin_dn

 Alyssa DeWitt

Age: 27

Occupation: Stay-at-home mom to four young children

Education: Manistee High School

Family: Husband Jared, a member of the Little River Band of Ottawa, is a business student and a valet supervisor at the tribal casino in Manistee. Children are daughters Briar, 6, and Cleo, who'll turn 4 in November, and sons Castle, 2, and newborn Arrow.

Why honored: For pulling three panicked girls to safety and helping a fourth to shore as high winds propelled dangerous waves near the Lake Michigan shoreline in Manistee.

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