Genuine Rockaway Hero Dies at 99
Rockaway lifeguard Mel Cuba was celebrating his 23rd birthday on August 8, 1933, by doing what he had been doing each summer beginning in 1928 – guarding the beachfront at Beach 9 Street in Far Rockaway.
Cuba, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, was watching a group of 105 orphans from the Pride of Judea Home on Dumont Avenue in Brooklyn run in and out of the surf, holding hands under the gaze of their teachers.
The tide was running in that day, causing rough surf, according to contemporary accounts in the New York Times. About 40 of the older children wandered out into a sandbar that was located about 40 feet out in the Atlantic Ocean. The Times reported that they were “holding hands and squealing with delight,” when a large wave struck them and destroyed the sandbar under their feet.
Many of them were swept away, pulled out into deeper water.
The Times said that lifeguards leapt from their chairs, climbed into catamarans and paddled towards the screaming children.
Cuba, however, reportedly ran right into the water, swimming 100 feet into the raging tide. First, he grabbed one young boy, and then two more. Then, another.
Treading water, Cuba managed to hang on to the four flailing children while keeping himself afloat.
Herbert Goodman, another lifeguard, approached Cuba in a catamaran, pulled two children from the water and then went to rescue Cuba and his four young charges.
The Times said that Cuba, exhausted from keeping the four children afloat, had to be carried ashore.
Seven children died that day.
Thirty-three children were pulled from the current by six lifeguards, all of whom were honored by Mayor John P. O’Brien. O’Brien singled Cuba out for particular praise.
Cuba, who had graduated from City College the year prior to the rescue and was a star of its water polo team, worked in the defense industry during World War II and eventually became a New York City public school teacher. After a long career, he and his wife retired to Delray Beach, Florida, where he died on December 6, 2009 at the age of 99. His daughter, Susan Rein said that throughout his life, Cuba kept a bracelet bearing the city seal and an inscription, “Melville Cuba, Lifeguard.”