‘It could have been prevented’: Rockaway drownings promptly scrutiny of unsupervised beaches

'It could have been prevented': Rockaway drownings promptly scrutiny of unsupervised beaches

The calls came within 20 minutes of one another on Friday evening: two young people, swimming separately on a popular stretch of Rockaway Beach, swept out to sea by the choppy surf.

The FDNY responded first, witnesses said, as beach-goers directed them to the spot near a rock jetty, where they believed one swimmer had gone under. Dozens of lifeguards sprinted over a few minutes later.

After a brief search, rescuers discovered the body of a 16-year-old girl on Beach 108th Street. Another male, believed to be around 18, was discovered at Beach 98th Street, authorities said.

Both individuals — whose names have not yet been released — were pronounced dead at area hospitals. Before 7 pm, three other distressed swimmers were rescued. All three were hospitalized, but are expected to survive, officials said.

The string of incidents evoked grief and anger among lifeguards and local residents, many of whom cast blame on a decision by the city not to staff lifeguards on one of the most heavily-trafficked stretches of Rockaway Beach.

“It’s unbelievably devastating because it could have been prevented,” said Helen Kilgallen, a Rockaway resident, who said she called 911 after watching a group of teenagers swimming near a rock jetty at Beach 108th Street. “If there was anybody on duty, they never would’ve let them near those rocks.”

Last month, the Parks Department, which oversees city lifeguards, announced a ban on swimming between Beach 86th Street and Beach 116th Street through mid-July, as a result of a federal resiliency project to build out more jetties. While water access is off officially limits, the city has kept most of the shoreline open to the public.

Multiple lifeguards told Gothamist at the time that the arrangement was a recipe for disaster, noting that people would inevitably venture into the water unsupervised. For some, the deaths on Friday night were seen as a grim confirmation of those fears.

“We knew it was inevitable,” said Janet Fash, a longtime chief lifeguard on Rockaway Beach. “When they’re closing beaches that would be open and not providing lifeguards, it really puts the public at risk.”

A spokesperson for the Parks Department, Crystal Howard, disputed that narrative, writing in an email that the drownings had happened after 6 pm, when city lifeguards end their shifts.

“Conflating these horrible after-hours incidences with any other issue is just wrong and ill-informed,” Howard said.

But according to the FDNY, the call for the first victim, the 16-year-old girl on Beach 108th Street, came at 5:58 pm, when a lifeguard would normally be on duty. They received a second call of a person drowning at 6:19 pm The three other non-fatal incidents were reported between Beach 86th and Beach 87th Street between 6:30 pm and 7 pm

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