OCEAN CITY – The waters off the coast of Ocean City claimed their first victim of the season last weekend when a 19-year-old Lanham, Md. man drowned around 31st Street after getting swept under by a rip current.
Around 2:45 p.m. last Sunday, two brothers and a cousin, originally from Jamaica, were swimming in the ocean not far from shore between 31st and 32nd streets when they suddenly found themselves caught in a rip current. One of the brothers and the cousin were rescued by the Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP), but the third man, Lijpaul Headly, 19, was swept under and never found despite an extensive search.
OCBP Captain Butch Arbin said he received the call around 2:45 p.m. on Sunday that there were multiple guards in the water near 31st Street searching for the third of three men, all of them non-swimmers, caught in a rip current. Arbin said he responded to the scene and was able to put together a clear picture of what had happened after interviewing several witnesses.
Arbin said one witness, a Salisbury man who was swimming nearby in a wetsuit and fins, told him he had gone to the three men who appeared to be in trouble and told them to swim away from the rip current, but they told him they could not swim. OCBP rescue technicians were able to rescue two of the troubled swimmers and when they asked if there was anyone else with them, one of them indicated his brother was still unaccounted for.
There were several people swimming nearby and almost none of them realized the severity of the situation until it was too late. The three distressed swimmers were in waist-deep water and appeared to be playing rather than in serious trouble, according to several witnesses in the area. Complicating the issue was the noise emanating from the powerboat races going on just off the coast, according to Arbin.
The OCBP immediately sprang into action with as many as 15 lifeguards in the water conducting a search for Headly. At first, they took turns diving under the water and searching the bottom with their hands and arms. They then locked arms and walked across the bottom in the area where Headly was last seen in an effort to corral the missing swimmer.
A Coast Guard boat, nearby because of the powerboat races, was quickly on the scene and joined the search by patrolling the surface and a Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) boat responded and did the same. Also, a Maryland State Police helicopter equipped with thermal imaging gear that can detect warm patches in the otherwise cold water joined the search. A Coast Guard helicopter also participated in the effort.
Arbin said his personnel continued to search for Headly long after any reasonable hope of a rescue had passed.
“We continued to search for about an hour-and-a-half,” he said. “After about 10 minutes, brain damage starts to occur, and after 30 minutes, the chance of survival drops to about zero. It never is really zero because there are cases when a person can be revived after a long period of time under water, but after 90 minutes, it became apparent it was a recovery mission and not a rescue mission.”
Meanwhile, on the beach, Arbin consoled a woman he believed was Headly’s mother, who pleaded with him not to call off the search.
“She was begging me not to end the search,” he said. “She said ‘that means there is no hope’ but I had to tell her that there really was not much hope after so much time had passed.”
Arbin said he later received a call from a woman in Jamaica who said she was Headly’s mother and also begged him to continue searching for her son.
“One of the most difficult things in this job is telling a family on the beach their loved one has probably not survived. We’re in the business of rescuing people and it’s very seldom we have to deal with the personal side in a drowning,” the captain said.
The MSP helicopter called off its search after about 90 minutes because of fuel issues, but the Coast Guard helicopter continued to search overnight Sunday and into Monday morning before officially calling off the search. The OCBP continued to search for Headly’s body throughout the early part of the week and responded to several witness reports of spotting what appeared to be a body in the water, but they were unfounded. As of late yesterday, the body had not been recovered.
Arbin said the tragic incident served as a reminder of the importance of following a few common sense rules when swimming in the ocean. First and foremost is the importance of swimming when the beach patrol is on duty.
“Fortunately, we don’t have a lot of experience with drowning because we get so few of them, but in my 35 years of experience with the Beach Patrol, 95-percent have occurred when the guards are not on duty,” he said.
The second most important factor is swimming ability, according to Arbin. “If a person wants to enjoy the ocean but doesn’t know how to swim, they should check with the guards to see what the conditions are,” he said. “More importantly, they should go in the water right in front of the guard and stay close to shore. When people suddenly find themselves in water over their heads, they often panic, and a non-swimmer doesn’t struggle very long. The important message in this for all people enjoying the ocean is don’t go beyond your ability.”