2001-08-04 / Front Page

With All Three Bodies Recovered,

With All Three Bodies Recovered,

Only the Controversy Remains

By Howard Schwach

The drowning of the three young girls who were swept away from Beach 17 Street last week by a strong rip current while they were bathing on an unprotected beach still resonates in the Rockaway community.

The body of Jubeda Ahmed, 16, was found last Saturday morning, about one mile off the beach at approximately Beach 25 Street. The body of her younger sister, Shazheda, 12, was spotted by a resident of the high-rise buildings at Beach 105 Street. The resident called 911 and police harbor and aviation units, responding to that call, quickly found the body off the shore at Beach 90 Street.

The multiple drowning focused a spotlight on Rockaway beaches, as well as on beaches all up and down the Eastern seaboard.

The Daily News recently did a two-page story that called Rockaway beaches "the city’s deadliest." According to the story, there have been fourteen fatalities at Rockaway beaches over the past decade, twice as many as at Coney Island and at Long Beach, the two beaches to our immediate West and East, respectively.

In contrast, Jones Beach has had only three fatalities over that period of time and Robert Moses State Beach has had four.

A survey by The Wave in light of the tragedy revealed that many other Atlantic Coast beaches share Rockaway’s problems.

And, while the reason for the drownings in Rockaway is not in doubt, controversy has grown over responsibility for the tragedy.

"Rip tides and rip currents are the third largest weather-related killer in America, right after hurricanes and tornadoes," Captain Butch Arbin of the Ocean City, Maryland Beach Patrol told The Wave.

"What you had in Rockaway was a rip current," he told us. "We have a similar problem at the south end of our beach where the Army Corps of Engineers have dug a channel to the bay. We have to keep an extra lifeguard posted there."

Arbin says that there are "an average of two or three drownings" at his beach each year, the majority of them "when lifeguards are not on duty."

Arbin pointed out that he knew all about the drownings in Rockaway because it had brought all of the Baltimore and Washington (D.C.) media to his beach.

"The dragged their cameras and microphones out to the beach to find out if it could happen here," Arbin says with a laugh. "Of course it could happen here. It could happen anywhere."

The head of the lifeguards at Cape May, New Jersey, agrees with Arbin.

In fact, he was in the process of moving bathers out of the water as we spoke on Monday because the weather had created strong rip tides moving off the beach and it was too dangerous to allow people to swim rather than wade.

So does EMS Administrator Ed Brazo, the head of the Virginia Beach (Virginia) lifeguards.

"We have had two drownings in the last two weeks, both of them at times when there were no lifeguards on duty," Brazo told The Wave. "One was a sixteen year old and the other was forty-four years old and you would think that they would read the signs before going into the water."

He too was in the process of moving people from the deeper water as we spoke.

"We have a real weather-related tide condition today," he said. "The rip tide is really strong."

In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the tide was running as well.

"We have had four drownings this year, Lieutenant Ted Knipes said. "All four of them were attributable to rip tides and all of them were during the time that lifeguards were not on duty – three of them during nighttime hours."

The statements of lifeguard supervisors working in various portions of the Eastern Seaboard mirror some of the problems faced by the New York City Parks Department and some of the complaints that have surfaced in the wake of the recent drownings.

One of the strongest arguments by those who believe that the city is somehow responsible for the deaths is that the beach is protected by lifeguards only from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, while in the past, lifeguards worked from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.

The Wave survey, however, found that an eight-hour day is fairly typical of hours beaches are open for swimming in other jurisdictions.

At Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, for example, the beaches are open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. There has not been a drowning on those beaches for the past ten years, but officials there attribute it to the fact that the Federal Park Police are active keeping the people out of the water at off-hours.

At Ocean City, the beaches are open from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., at Virginia Beach, from 9:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. At Cape May they are open from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.

Each of the beaches, as with New York City, has signs warning bathers to stay out of the water during hours when lifeguards are not on duty.

At Ocean Beach (Maryland), each of the lifeguard stands has a sign with the instructions for keeping afloat while taken out to sea by a rip tide.

The first instruction is to stay out of the water when there are no lifeguards on duty. Every chief lifeguard The Wave queried made that instruction the "first commandment" in staying alive in the ocean.

"There are nearly 4,000 water rescues a year nationally," says Captain Arbin and 90 percent of them are related to rip tides or rip currents."

There is a movement to reduce the number of deaths to rip tides and rip currents.

The National Weather Service directs that drive.

If you call The National Weather Service telephone number in Wilmington, Delaware, and then push "3" for the marine forecast, you will hear the hours of rip tides and rip currents on that city’s beaches.

Bob Chartuk works for the National Weather Service. He is an expert on tides and he explains that the service is working on a national computer model to predict the killer tides just as the organization has a model for predicting hurricanes.

When that comes, then lifeguard agencies throughout the nation should be able to predict when the tides will come and to warn bathers in advance to get out of the water.

Many of those The Wave spoke with, however, pointed out that nothing will work if people do not listen to the warnings posted on the beach.

"We could put up fences and somebody would probably climb them to get to the water," one lifeguard chief told us. "The water is a dangerous place and people will die until they realize that fact."

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