Off-duty Chicago firefighter who drowned in Lake Michigan at 31st Street Beach ID'd by family

Wilbert Hayes served with the Chicago Fire Department for 14 years

ByTre Ward and ABC7 Chicago Digital Team WLS logo
Monday, July 31, 2023
Chicago firefighter who drowned in Lake Michigan ID'd by family
Chicago Fire Department firefighter Wilbert Hayes died after being pulled from Lake Michigan at 31st Street Beach Sunday morning, his family said.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- An off-duty Chicago firefighter died on Sunday morning after being pulled out of Lake Michigan at 31st Street Beach, fire officials said.

Cell phone video captured the dramatic rescue efforts.

"Come on, Heavenly Father. Bring him out. Bring him out alive," a woman can be heard saying in the video.

CFD responded to the beach about 7:30 a.m. for a call of a marine distress, a CFD spokesperson said. Crews pulled a man from the water, who was in critical condition.

"It looks like they got him," the woman continued. "Is that him? Did they get him? Oh, my God, thank you!"

But, sadly, the man, later identified by his family as Wilbert Hayes, did not make it. It was not immediately clear what led to his distress.

SEE ALSO: Body recovered after boat accident in Lake Michigan near Navy Pier; 6 others injured: CFD

Hayes, who had just ended a shift with the Chicago Fire Department before going to the beach with his family, died at University of Chicago Medical Center. He had been on the job since 2009.

In a statement, Hayes' widow, LaToya Hayes, said "Wilbert was an exceptional husband, father, big brother and friend. He was full of life and was passionate about his family and change in the community. This is a devastating loss, and we ask that you keep our family in your thoughts and prayers."

Bob Pratt is a retired firefighter himself. He said his organization, Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, has seen a spike in drownings in the Great Lakes over the last week alone including 18-year-old Rayan Mohammad of Bartlett, Illinois. His body was pulled from a Gary, Indiana beach on Saturday.

"Every one of these people had a mother and father. Many of them had loved ones. And, many of them, like the Chicago firefighter, had loved ones with them at the beach when they had the fatal drowning," Pratt said.

So far this year, 48 people have drowned in the Great Lakes, 20 of them in Lake Michigan.

"It's possible there are even more numbers, and sadly, we're getting reports, today, that there are other incidents occurring right now, and hopefully, they will be rescues and not body recoveries," Pratt said.

Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt also released a statement, saying, "This morning, one of our own was swimming with family while off the lakefront. Crews quickly responded and located him underwater, but despite advanced care of our own paramedics and the medical team at the University of Chicago, he passed away. The loss of any of our members is a loss for the First Responder community and the City as a whole. While this incident did occur off duty after his shift, we are conducting a full investigation to determine the status of this tragic loss. CFD is not identifying our member at this time, but can acknowledge that he has been on the job since 2009. My prayers are with his family and co-workers on the CFD."

CFD said it will release more details after getting preliminary information from the Cook County Medical Examiner' Office.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson released a statement, saying, "The City of Chicago mourns the loss of Chicago Fire Department Engineer Wilbert Hayes of Engine 16. We are eternally grateful for his bravery and service, and my deepest sympathies go out to his family, loved ones, and colleagues. Let us keep Engine 16 and all of our city's first responders in our prayers."