OCEAN CITY — A 17-year-old male drowned in the ocean at 92nd Street last Friday afternoon, marking the second time in less than two weeks a teen visiting the resort was lost in the sea and the first time in seven years a swimmer drowned while lifeguards were on duty.
Around 2 p.m. last Friday, an unidentified 17-year-old male got caught in a rip current just off the beach at 92nd Street and quickly became submerged in the water. An Ocean City Beach Patrol Surf Rescue Technician (SRT) was the first to enter the water in search of the missing swimmer and was soon joined by multiple public safety entities.
The water rescue included roughly 30 rescue swimmers from the OCBP, the Ocean City Fire Department, the Ocean City Police Department, the Coast Guard and the DNR, who walked arm-in-arm searching in vain for the distressed swimmer. A Maryland State Police helicopter joined the search from the air and a single-engine aircraft participating in the Ocean City Air Show also offered assistance in the air during the search.
About 45 minutes later, the submerged swimmer was found and carried to the beach where he was treated on the scene by Ocean City EMS personnel before being transported to AGH, where he was pronounced deceased.
Last Friday’s incident marked the second drowning of a teenager visiting Ocean City in the span of less than two weeks. Around 4:30 p.m. on June 2, three non-swimmers entered the ocean off 137th Street and quickly became distressed in a rip current. Beach Patrol SRTs entered the water and quickly rescued two of the swimmers in trouble, but the third man, a 17-year-old from Montgomery County could not be immediately located for about 30 minutes. He was later pronounced dead.
The two deaths in the span of less than two weeks marked the first time since 2007 that a victim was lost in the ocean while the beach patrol was on duty. There have been dozens of drowning incidents when the OCBP was off duty, reinforcing the message to only swim when the guards are in the stands.
“If we judge our success on statistics, then yes, we haven’t had a drowning on our watch in several years and now we’ve had two in the span of about two weeks,” said Captain Butch Arbin. “It’s a lot like the whole pedestrian crosswalks thing. Yes, the campaign is working and the numbers are down, but that doesn’t mean somebody isn’t going to step off that median in front of a car tonight. You keep hammering home the message and keep doing the things you’ve been doing and hope and pray not to lose even one.”
Arbin said the OCBP leadership has studied its response during both incidents.
“A full review of both incidents indicates that the SRTs on duty did everything as beach patrol protocol and procedures dictate and that once we had a missing individual, the beach patrol resources along with several other public safety agencies performed exceptionally, locating the victims within a 45-minute search window,” Arbin said.
Arbin said he has personally felt loss with the deaths of loved ones and in incidents in the past when someone has drowned in the ocean, either during off-duty beach patrol hours or when the guards are in the stands.
“We’re not making excuses,” he said. “I’ve been on the beach during these incidents and I personally feel the impact of every loss. If we could do one magic thing to make everyone safe, we would do that. We can talk about woulda, coulda, shoulda, and it’s healthy to do that, but that is hindsight and we have to move forward.”
The ever-changing conditions in the ocean, from rip currents to heavy surf, coupled with non-swimmers taking to the water can often meet with tragic, sometimes deadly results, as the two recent incidents illustrate. Lifeguards attempt to keep an eye on every single person in the water, whether they can swim or not, although identifying the latter is not always simple.
“In the first incident, we had three people in waist-deep water that can’t swim,” he said. “We don’t know that. There are no signs or arm tags on them that say non-swimmer.”
Arbin said during the incident last Friday, the SRT on the beach briefly saw the swimmer in trouble.
“The guard saw the guy in distress and making arm movements, but a wave broke over him and he wasn’t seen again,” he said. “We searched and searched, along with our public safety partners, but by the time we found him it was too late to do anything.”
In both cases, factors outside the beach patrol’s control resulted in tragedy.
“The two most common contributing factors to any drownings that occur are both out of our control, the ocean environment, meaning the waves, currents and contour of the bottom, and the swimming ability of people who enter the ocean,” he said. “What we do try to influence is the public education, both in Ocean City and away from the area. We are still going with the same messages. Swim only when the beach patrol is on duty and check in with the lifeguard each day about the current conditions.”
The patrol conducts weekly seminars on ocean safety and rip currents, typically on Sunday when a new batch of weekly visitors arrive. The patrol also conducts daily seminars at all resort beaches outlining the prevailing conditions of the day and often several times a day when those conditions change. Ironically, on the beach at 92nd Street last Friday, the SRTs held several impromptu seminars warning visitors about rip current dangers. Nonetheless, some are questioning whether the education campaign is working or if the patrol is doing enough.
“We’ve seen and heard some comments suggesting maybe we should review our procedures or we’re not doing enough, but we’ve also had tons of letters, calls and emails from witnesses on the beach who have said the beach patrol was amazing in their response,” he said. “We stand by our record and we always strive to do even better.”
Arbin explained the beach patrol connects with a Crisis Response Team (CRT) for counseling for SRTs involved in incidents. The CRT is not a formal organization, but rather a collection of individuals that could be clergy, psychologists or even high school guidance counselors. Arbin said there is essentially a large safety net in place for the beach patrol to take care of its own.
In the case of the incident last Friday, the SRTs on the beach at 92nd Street were already scheduled to be off the following day, but if they weren’t, patrol leadership would ask them if they would like to be off, or work a different beach, or even work in the office or in some other capacity. Each incident is handled on a case-by-case basis.
“I usually go to them and tell them you did right and you followed beach patrol procedures and protocols,” he said. “The biggest thing is letting them know in my eyes they did everything they were supposed to do. It would be different if they fell asleep in their stand and someone drowned on their watch.”