Tragic Wednesday: Two drownings in matter of hours

(Sept. 19, 2014) Tragedy struck the Ocean City beach yet again on Wednesday, claiming two more lives in what has already been a historically violent summer at sea.

Hundreds of beachgoers watched as rescue vehicles pulled onto the Boardwalk Wednesday and crews pulled several swimmers from rough surf. (JOSH DAVIS, PHOTO)

In separate incidents, a 52-year-old male from Huntingdon, Pa. and a 49-year-old male from Rosedale died after struggling in rip currents.

Ocean City Beach Patrol responded to a pair of distress calls near 17th and 20th streets on the beach just after 12:30 p.m. Swimming restrictions were put in place, and crews rescued three swimmers in what Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin called “a pretty routine rescue from a rip current.”

“One of those individuals, although the guard said he never went under water, did go unconscious,” Arbin said. “They already had him holding onto a buoy, and he then just lost consciousness.”

Crews transported a 19-year-old male and the Huntingdon, Pa. man to Atlantic General Hospital, treating the former for non-life threatening injuries. The 52-year-old was pronounced dead at approximately 1:30 p.m.

Beach Patrol Surf Rescue Technicians responded to a second incident in the area minutes later, bringing two more swimmers caught in rip currents to shore. Neither required medical attention.

Hundreds of people watched as ambulances and police cars lined the Boardwalk between 17th and 20th streets during the dual rescues. Pittsburgh native Dan Chess, who was on the beach near 17th Street, believed he saw at least six people being pulled from the water.

“It was all within 15 minutes,” he said. “They pulled three out and after probably another 10 minutes they pulled three more.”

Chess saw one man receive chest compressions.

“They didn’t know if he was going to make it or not,” he said.

Larry Stevens, riding his bike on vacation from North Jersey, watched from the Boardwalk near 18th Street as rescuers pulled a young man from the water.

“He was way out in the water when they recovered him,” he said. “What I thought I was seeing was them bringing him in from all the way down here, but it turned out to be a separate incident, and there was another guy they were doing chest compressions on when they brought him in.”

Stevens said the surf had been strong for most of the day.

Baltimore resident Ray Smith, watching from the Boardwalk near 19th Street, saw rescue crews pull a pair of swimmers he described as “bobbing” from the water.

“The guy came out, walked a little and collapsed,” he said. “He was weakened. And the girl – she seemed okay. I never saw any more of her, and they got into the ambulance and rolled out. It all happened pretty quickly.”

A third rescue took place five hours later when a Surf Rescue Technician near Ninth Street noticed a swimmer in distress and called for assistance.

“The guards were off duty and they had cleared the water,” Arbin said. “We still had people on the beach even though we were off duty, and one of our sergeants who was on the beach saw people in a rip current. When he stopped to look, that’s when he saw the person that they pulled out was actually just floating out into the further part of the rip current, so he initiated the rescue.”

According to Arbin, the man had just entered the water when the rip current ensnared him.

Two additional Beach Patrol and several Ocean City Fire Department rescue swimmers responded to the incident. Rescue crews treated the Rosedale man on the scene and transported him to AGH, where medical personnel pronounced him dead.

Arbin called the two drowning deaths in a single day “very unusual.”

“What happened tonight with somebody going swimming when the guards go off duty, unfortunately that’s much more usual than having anything happen during the day,” he said. “Today, according to the guards, they actually made the rescue. They actually got to the person before they were underwater. I’ve seen that happen before where the person is stressed – it’s like when people go out in a snowstorm and shovel snow and have heart attacks. Their body is not used to it. When you’re in the ocean and caught in a rip current and you’re fighting and trying to make you way back to shore, it can distress your body more. The result unfortunately in this case was something happened that caused the man to suddenly lose consciousness while the guards had him.”

Before this year, Ocean City had not reported a drowning death while lifeguards were on duty since 2007. Including the two incidents this week, five swimmers died following struggles in rip currents this summer and a sixth died of a broken neck.

“Today was a really horrible day for the entire Ocean City community,” said Ocean City Communications Manager Jessica Waters. “Our job is to invite people here and have them have the best time of their lives and make sure they’re provided with a safe place. Any time that we have a visitor or a resident who has any type of tragic experience like this it affects us all very deeply.”

Rip currents occur when water moving towards the beach attempts to make its way back out.

“We see in Ocean City something called ‘flash rips,’ Arbin said. “That’s where large volumes of water come across the sandbar and then they have to make their way back out through the sandbar, and all that literally tons and tons of water makes its way back out. That’s the current that’s pulling people away from shore.”

Arbin said most swimmers should be able to navigate a rip current safely – if they remain calm.

“Rip currents do not pull you under,” he said. “If you can swim and you don’t panic you have two choices – you can basically float the rip out until it disperses and then swim out of it, or you can just begin swimming parallel to shore until you’re free of where it’s pulling you away, and then just make a diagonal line right into shore. Even in the largest, strongest rip is not going to pull you under.”

Struggling against the current often leads swimmers to exhaust themselves.

“In the first case today it appears that person could swim, but in his attempt to swim out of it he overstressed his body and that may have caused a medical complication,” Arbin said. “The second one, an eyewitness said he had just gone in. It sounds like he was out of the water when the guards left, and then chose to go swimming right after the guards left the area.”

If there is a lifeguard on duty, ask him about the conditions in the water.

“It’s a real good idea because right now (lifeguards) are spread out,” Arbin said. “By checking in with the lifeguard it puts you in the vicinity, and then you should swim right there. Even in a case where we do make a rescue, if a guard only has to run 10 yards and then swim out he’s going to get to you pretty quickly. It’s real critical that you check in with the guard and you choose to swim in front of the guard.”

Lifeguard service continues in Ocean City until Sunday, Sept. 21. Arbin said Beach Patrol would double their staffing throughout the weekend.

“What happened (on Wednesday) unfortunately is what we see the most of, people getting themselves in trouble when we’re not on duty,” he said. “Hopefully when people hear this story they’ll think twice about going out in the water when the guards are off duty. Drowning is one of the most preventable kinds of death – people just need a little education.”

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