Father mourns missing daughter swept off Holland pier

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
This is the North Pier at Holland State Park, the location from which teenager Eliza Trainer was swept into Lake Michigan and lost.

Walking on a concrete pier at night, two teens ventured deeper toward a turbulent Lake Michigan.

With water thrashing on both sides, Eliza Trainer and Kade Goodrich wanted to take photos of the waves crashing into the Holland shore, said her father, Scott Trainer. Glinting in a harbor light, the droplets looked like diamonds falling from the sky, he said.

Eliza Trainer

Kade took some pictures and turned for a different view when, suddenly, he and Eliza were underwater after being swamped by a wave, he later told Scott.

The shock of cold cramped Kade's body and he struck his head against something hard. He shed his coat and clambered onto a rock. He said he tried to pull Eliza up with him, but a wave ripped her away.

Nine days later, she is still missing.

Eliza left the world the same way she inhabited it — as a free spirit, Scott Trainer said in the first interview about his daughter’s death.

“She did stuff that others were afraid to do,” he said. “She didn’t want to be a sheep. She wanted to be an individual.”

Interviews with Trainer and others shed additional light on Eliza, her relationship with Kade, why they traveled across the state and what happened on the pier.

Eliza was an only child who was drawn to the large Goodrich family, relatives said. She met them after befriending Kade’s younger sister.

The devout Goodriches, who have five children, practically adopted Eliza, taking her on vacations, fishing trips, boating excursions.

She became close with the entire clan, said Kade’s father, Derek Goodrich. Kade was like an older brother to her.

“Her smile just radiated our home,” Derek said. “She was a blessing to us.”

Kade, 19, had a fledgling interest in photography and traveled around the state taking pictures of Eliza, 16, Scott Trainer said.

One week before the Jan. 1 trip to Holland, Eliza posed for a photo at a pier on Lake Huron. It was the last photo she posted on her Instagram page.

“Here’s to another year of chances,” she wrote.

In Holland, they wanted to see Big Red, one of the most popular lighthouses in the state, relatives said. The twin-gabled, three-story structure dates back to 1907.

Just before leaving her car to walk the Holland pier, Eliza was texted by her dad, telling her to be safe, Scott said.

Earlier that night, before leaving Flint for Holland, Eliza talked with a friend, Morgan League, on the phone, League said.

The two just talked about random things, whatever popped into their heads, she said. But League ended the call with an ominous warning.

“I told her, ‘Be safe, Eliza, don’t be stupid,” League said.

Pier of tranquility, turbulence

Standing at the end of the Holland pier can make you feel like you’re in the middle of Lake Michigan.

On placid days, it’s a sea of tranquility. On others, a tempest.

It started the new year in a rage.

Stirred up by strong winds, 12-foot waves lashed at the shore as Eliza and Kade walked the north end of the pier around 11:30 p.m. New Year's Day, law enforcement officials said. It was cold and windy just before midnight.

The onslaught was bolstered by a year’s worth of excessive rain and snow that left the lake bloated. The jetty was just a few feet above the water level.

This is the North Pier at Holland State Park, the location from which teenager Eliza Trainer was swept into Lake Michigan and lost.

The spindly jetty offered little protection to the teens. It was just a series of concrete slabs.

“The waves are breaking over the pier,” said Sgt. Jay Douglas of the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office. “Being out there at night, it’s a very dangerous situation.”

After being swept into the 36-degree water, the two teens clutched each other for five minutes, Kade told his family. But the waves were too strong for him to maintain his grasp.

After getting out of the water, he ran for help and, finding a man in a car and used his cellphone to call the police.

Kade is battered physically and mentally from the ordeal, said Jeff Haddon, a young adult pastor at the Goodrich’s church, Trinity Assembly of God in Mount Morris.

Haddon, who has spoken with Kade, said he has a long road to recovery.

“This young man is heroic,” he said. “A lesser man wouldn’t have done some of the things he did to try to save his friend.”

Kade’s relatives said he wasn’t prepared to discuss the tragedy.

A carefree spirit

Some teens are crippled by peer pressure, but Eliza didn’t seem to care what other people thought of her.

She behaved, spoke and dressed however she pleased, friends said. A typical outfit might include a trucker cap, bulky sweatshirt and cowboy boots.

She was blunt with a caustic wit, said friends. Her candor even spread to adults, including teachers.

“She wasn’t your ordinary girly girl,” said one of Eliza’s teachers, Kathy McGowan, who taught applied physics. “She was a natural leader. She didn’t follow how everyone acted.”

Eliza Trainer behaved, spoke and dressed however she pleased, friends said.

Nights at the Trainer home were the stuff of legend, friends said.

They were sleepovers that involved no sleep whatsoever. Instead, Eliza and her buddies would cavort in the pool or on the trampoline or ride dirt bikes along trails in the spacious backyard.

Her dad, a single parent, would happily preside over the mayhem, frequently whipping up fried chicken.

“The things that went on in her house were unimaginable,” said a friend, Alayna Traver. “She had this happy, chaotic energy wherever she went.”

Eliza had lost her mom when she was 11. Sandy Trainer had a rare form of ovarian cancer that had ravaged her body for three years.

The death sent the youngster into a tailspin, Scott said. Normally outgoing, she became reclusive, closed off from everyone, including her dad.

She eventually found her bearings and slowly began to socialize with people again.

“It was a dark time for her,” Scott said. “It changed her for a bit. It took a while to get out of it.”

Search for Eliza

Law enforcement agencies have been searching for Eliza with ATVs on the beach, patrol boats in the water and a helicopter in the sky.

The professionals have been joined by amateurs, including relatives of the Trainers and Goodriches.

At 80, Shirley Trainer is normally homebound. But Eliza is her granddaughter and so, last Sunday, Shirley put on a coat and her family drove her from Waterford to Holland.

She was heartened to see a battalion of volunteers looking for a person they had never met. There were parents and their children, she said. Some searchers were on surfboards. One was parasailing.

It was cold and windy, but the lookers kept looking.

And then there were Eliza’s friends from the Flint area, Shirley said. They kept coming — 60 strong — throughout the day to pay their respects.

“It was constant, just constant,” she said about the steady procession of friends showing up. “It was totally amazing.”

Scott Trainer, father of Eliza Trainer

During the nine days of searching, Lake Michigan sometimes turned calm, almost mocking what had transpired Jan. 1.

But invariably the lake that thinks it’s a sea began to churn again, making a water search difficult. It has remained roiling most of the nine days.

Among the searchers is another grandmother from the other side of the state, Linda Woods. Kade is her grandson and Eliza was like a granddaughter, Woods said.

She and family members have used binoculars to see if they can spot something, anything that would lead to Eliza’s location.

Woods has walked the shore every day since the incident. She said she won’t leave until the teen is found.

"Eliza was a good person," Woods said. "Like any teenager, she wanted to be doing something all the time."

Meanwhile, Eliza's family and friends are trying to raise $25,000 for her funeral expenses. They had raised nearly $15,000 as of Friday.

Standing vigil

As searchers scoured Lake Michigan last Saturday, a vigil was held at Trinity Assembly of God.

About 50 people listened as Eliza’s friends and family shared memories about her.

The pulpit was still decorated with two Christmas trees and poinsettias. Projected on a wall was a photo of Eliza standing at the end of a dock with a small lake behind her.

An emotional Derek Goodrich said he would miss how Eliza would chide him on how he needed to be a better dad and husband.

He said he liked her spunk and fierce defiance. He said they had that in common.

“She did not live according to how today’s society would want to dictate how you live,” Derek said.

Morgan League laughed when she told the gatherers how easily trouble found her friend.

“Eliza: When you think of that name, you think, oh, gosh, what has she gotten into now?” League said.

Scott Trainer attended the vigil but didn’t speak. He said he just wanted to hear what people had to say about his daughter.

Despite being the grieving father, he lent support to others, encouraging them to say a few words and embracing a sobbing Derek Goodrich.

Another speaker was Scott’s niece, Katy Turcotte.

She said she didn’t know how to help her 11-year-old son understand the death when she didn’t understand it herself.

“No one’s story should end at 16,” Turcotte said.