Dispatcher talks with stranded Lake Michigan kayaker for an hour

On Wednesday, Lilia Barriga, 50, of Mishawaka, decided to go kayaking after a rough week at work. Barriga is a hospice nurse, whose patient had passed away and was looking forward to some time alone.

Around 5 a.m. she launched from Harbert Beach in Chikaming Township and started across the lake toward Chicago. After about three hours she stopped to rest and started reading a book. A strong wave then caught her off guard, capsizing the boat.

Barriga tried for hours to get into the boat, but was unsuccessful. She then tried to swim closer to shore to get a signal on her cell phone to call for help.

Around 10:30 a.m. she grew tired and tried on a whim to make a call and dialed her dad in Mishawaka. To her surprise, the call went through and told him she was stranded in Lake Michigan. He then called 911 and reached dispatcher Becky Scheibelhut, who had less than an hour left in her 16-hour shift.

Neither Barriga's dad nor Scheibelhut were positive where on the lake Barriga was, so Scheibelhut decided to call Barriga while another dispatcher notified local rescuers.

Barriga told Scheibelhut she could see the dunes and had traveled north from New Buffalo, but couldn't provide any more details to help rescuers.

"Her location kept changing. She first went out at new buffalo area and then it changed to new pier and then Harbert Beach, so we weren't quite sure where she was," said Scheibelhut.

Scheibelhut was reluctant to transfer the call to a dispatch center closer to the lake because she was concerned

"I was just afraid if I tried to transfer her there was a chance it could get dropped," said Scheibelhut.

After about 20 minutes of talking, Barriga began to get even more tried and started going unconsciousness. In an attempt to keep her awake, Scheibelhut started to sing Jingle Bells with Barriga and continually peppered her with questions.

"I don't even know. I’m pretty amazed by it myself I just thought anything to keep her awake at all. I was tired myself after 16 hours of work," said Scheibelhut. "I thought how long is this going to be and the longer it went the more I thought ‘am I doing everything I’m supposed to?’ I’ve never technically had training for a Lake Michigan capsize and trying to find her."

For the next half-hour the two talked about topics ranging from holidays, pets and family. Every so often Barriga would tell Scheibelhut she couldn't hold on to the boat any longer, but Scheibelhut kept encouraging her. She was concerned even though Barriga would float with her life vest she would be harder to spot if she wasn't holding onto her yellow kayak.

"I was afraid for her. I was scared and I thought I do not want to hear her last conversation. I don’t want to be a part of that. I want her to come home to her family," said Scheibelhut

After an hour into the call, Scheibelhut heard rustling on the phone and Barriga stopped responding to her questions. Eventually she heard the voice of a Chikaming Township firefighter on the other end of the phone letting Scheibelhut know Barriga was safe.

"I was just cloud nine. I was saying I’m going to let you go, go do your job. Thank you, good job and I hung up, clapped, cheered, cried it was very good," said Scheibelhut. "I love my job. I love to help people and so I don’t look at it that I’m stepping out and doing something extraordinary or anything, it’s one that I’m trained to do and I want to do it and God just blessed me to put me in that position to help and be part of the whole puzzle and I’m very grateful for that."

Barriga was transported to an area hospital where she was treated and released. On Thursday Barriga and Scheibelhut met face-to-face in Mishawaka and pledged to stay lifelong friends. Barriga said she plans to make the trip to Chicago again at some point, but won't do it alone. She's also planning a cross-country road trip.


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