(Editor’s Note: The following is a series on the men and women who have spent their summers protecting all those who came to Ocean City for fun and safe vacation.)
OCEAN CITY — Every person who tries out for the Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP) has a story to tell. It’s a very difficult and stressful event that tests not only one’s speed and strength, but also their sheer determination. The OCBP wants guards who won’t quit, no matter what situation is thrown at them. Some people are swimmers who hope they can make it through the run. Others are runners who have trained their hardest to make the swim.
Eric Runk, however, was in a category by himself.
“I played baseball in college, and I knew swimming wasn’t my strong point.” Eric had grown up in Baltimore County and was attending Towson University. It was the fall of 1996, and Eric began hearing stories from his friends about their time guarding that summer in Ocean City. The more he heard, the more the idea of joining in on the adventures at the beach began appealing to him.
“I remember during the winter of 1997, discussing the upcoming tryouts taking place at Salisbury University,” he said.
By the 90’s, the OCBP had begun testing during the off season at various college and university pools throughout the state in an effort to get more recruits for the patrol and to get them sooner.
“That winter, I trained with a few guards for the upcoming test. I still remember showing up to the pool at Salisbury knowing I had to pass that swim test at all costs to make it on the OCBP,” he said. “I passed.”
When Eric arrived in Ocean City for beach patrol duty, he had no idea the kind of summer he was about to have. But like many people who become guards, once he started, he was hooked.
“I look back and still consider the OCBP as one of the best jobs I ever had,” said Eric, who took the stand on 138th Street and would guard from that post for the next four summers.
And as for the adventures his friends at Towson told him about, Eric would have more than his share.
“During my time with the OCBP, I dealt with a lot of incidents, good and bad,” he recalled. “From a plane crashing in front of my stand, to a little girl falling out of a hotel window. I’ve experienced boat fires and party pool rescues. I even saved a jet skier after he hit the pier at Northside Park.”
Not every adventure ended with a rescue. Eric laughs when he remembers, “I know I wasn’t perfect during those years, and I probably gave the captain, lieutenants, and sergeants headaches at times.” One of those headache causing moments occurred for Eric during the morning of the “re-test”. All OCBP guards not only have to take a grueling physical test to get onto the patrol, they have to endure another test every summer that they return. Knowing that you have done it once before is little comfort when the job is on the line again and the conditions you face that day may not be ideal. It’s tough for every guard, but once again, Eric was in a category by himself.
“Wes Smith pulled up in front of my stand. He had all my roommates inside the jeep, and he informed me that all of us were to take the test in front of the city council and members of the media. We had a party the night before and someone reported us to the mayor’s office,” he said.
Sometimes, you have to pay the price for having a good time. In the end, Eric passed and chalked it up as another great adventure.
Sometimes, the memories can be traumatic, but that often makes them that much more important to share.
“The one memory that has always stuck with me took place in 1999. While sitting on my stand on a busy day in July, people began running up to my stand screaming that a little girl was buried in the sand,” he said. “I called it in, and ran down to where they said she was buried. I remember just digging and screaming at people to get back because they were causing the sand to cave in. After about five minutes of digging, I reached the little girl’s foot, upside down and facing me. After pulling her out, I knew she was not breathing. I remember running with her to the beach access to meet the EMS that just arrived. Once they took her, they continued CPR until the medivac arrived, which then flew her to shock trauma. I was told later that she had started breathing again. I know that I was meant to be there at that time to rescue her.”
Eric would finish his guarding days after the 2000 season.
“The OCBP still has a big place in my heart, and it was truly an amazing experience that guided me into the career path I’m in today,” he said. “I made lifelong friends. My career has taken me all over the world and I’ve done and seen so many things, but I still consider my time with the OCBP as one of the best experiences of my life. When I sit in my office in Washington, I still have a picture on the wall of my OCBP crew.”
Eric currently runs European Operations for the US Marshals Service.