Councilman Sanders Says Lifeguard Deployment Is Racist
City Councilman James Sanders Jr. thinks that the recent spate of drownings on the Rockaway peninsula has as much to do with race as with rip currents.
"There is something drastically wrong with the lifeguard situation in Rockaway," Sanders said recently. "The population at the eastern end [of the Rockaway peninsula] is greater than the western end and we have drastically fewer open beaches and lifeguards.
While it is true that the Parks Department has moved glacially to open up one or two more open sites, it's also true that people down here are dying."
The most recent death at an eastern end beach came on August 12, when Heyward Patterson, of South Jamaica, and two friends decided to take a swim at Beach 15 Street at 3 a.m. on a hot, sultry night. Patterson was swept away by a strong rip current.
His body was recovered on Sunday morning on a private Long Beach (Long Island) beach by two joggers out for their morning run.
On June 13, Ramon Figero died at Beach 14 Street at about 8:20 a.m. nearly two hours before the lifeguards came on duty.
On August 1, Daniel O'Neill was swimming on an unprotected beach at Beach 27 Street, although there were a number of lifeguards on duty just two blocks away.
There were three other drowning deaths related to rip currents this summer, one in Breezy Point and the other two at Riis Park, a west end beach operated by the National Park Service.
Janet Fash, who has taken a year off as one of the chief lifeguards, and who often spars with both the Department of Parks and Recreation and her union, told Daily News columnist Denis Hamill recently that every beach from Beach 74 Street to Beach 159 Street is open and guarded, while only six beaches east of Beach 74 Street are open.
"The Parks Department has Beach 26 Street and Beach 59 Street open and four more bays between Beach 27 Street and Beach 9 in the Reynolds Channel [East Rockaway Inlet}, the most dangerous waters on the Rockaway peninsula, where the rip current actually becomes a riptide in the inlet. That encourages people to swim in the most dangerous waters. That is simply crazy."
A Parks spokesperson said that the lifeguards are deployed on beaches where they are needed most, and that the west end beaches are more heavily populated than those in the east end. Sanders plans to hold a meeting to address the problems he sees with the beaches and their staffing.
"We need more water safety classes," he says. "Maybe we can stagger lifeguard hours, and open more beaches. What we have now clearly is not working. We must be more creative. This is beyond black and white, this is about people dying. [O'Neill] did not have to die."