2009-08-21 / Front Page

Worst Year For Rockaway Rip Currents

By Howard Schwach

Experts say that the summer of 2009 may well be the worst on record in terms of drowning incidents in Rockaway.

Stephanie Olivares, 8, with her mother, Elfega, and little brother, Rivaldo, 5. Stephanie Olivares, 8, with her mother, Elfega, and little brother, Rivaldo, 5. "When water flows out towards the ocean and there are gaps in the sandbars, the current pulls swimmers along for the ride," said one longtime lifeguard, who asked not to be identified because she was speaking without permission of the Parks Department "Those currents can undermine somebody standing in the water, and can actually drag them out to sea."

She added that Rockaway beach is known for its unpredictable rip currents that run out of the East Rockaway Inlet and sweep westward along the peninsula's beaches.

Kevin Jeffrey, the Parks Department deputy commissioner for public programs told the Daily News, "In certain weather conditions, especially with a lot of south winds, the waves can create an opening in the sand bar that extends along the beachfront about 300 yards from the beach. When that happens, it's like turning over a five-gallon water cooler bottle and ripping the lid open - all the water comes rushing out. If you're at that location where the breach occurs, you get sucked out."

There have been seven ocean-related deaths on Rockaway beaches this year, six of them directly related to rip currents, while the seventh is pending a final determination by the city's medical examiner, who declared her cause of death to be drowning two weeks ago, but has not yet determined just how she drowned.

Last year, there were two deaths on Rockaway beaches, with only two in 2007, and one of those was the suicide of a noted artist.

Of this year's rip current-related deaths, four have been at city beaches, two have been at Riis Park and another at the Surf Club in Breezy Point.

The last death, in which a woman's body was found on the beach at Beach 28 Street in May, is the one whose circumstances have yet to be determined.

The death on August 14 of Jose-Luis Olivares, 36, of Ozone Park, underscores just how dangerous those rip currents can be.

Olivares, his wife and 8-year-old daughter were swimming at 7 p.m., about an hour after the lifeguards went off duty at Riis Park on Friday, when the rip current began to pull the daughter, Stephanie, out to sea.

Olivares reportedly rushed into the water to save his family and was lost. Both his wife and daughter made it safely to shore.

"The wave pushed me all the way to the back," the young daughter said. "I was scared because I didn't want my family to die."

An unidentified local man reportedly pulled Olivares' body from the surf.

He was transported to the Peninsula Hospital Center by police helicopter, but was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.

The common thread that runs throughout all the drowning incidents, the lifeguard said, is that all of them were swimming in unprotected waters, either on beaches that were not open or when lifeguards were not on duty.

"We do not have drownings when the lifeguards are on duty," says Brian Feeney, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, which runs Riis Park. "Our lifeguards are always in the water helping people who get in trouble."

Adrian Benepe, the city's commissioner of the Parks and Recreation agency agrees.

"[The people who drowned] were all people who went into the water at an unguarded beach or when there were no lifeguards on duty," Benepe said. "We have more than 300 lifeguards and supervisors in the Rockaways. We also have 50 security personnel who patrol the beaches both before and after hours to prevent people from going into the water."

Both Benepe and Feeney say that there are sufficient signs along the beachfront to warn swimmers to stay out of the water when lifeguards are not present.

Some, however, do not agree.

Javier Olivares, 33, brother of the man who died at Riis Park on August 14, said, "There needs to be more caution, more signs, or close the beach. This is the sixth person and, if you don't do anything, more people will die."

Sources say that at least 20 people have died in Rockaway waters in the past ten years.

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