City lifeguards along 5.7 miles of Laguna Beach’s coastline had already rescued 944 people over the three-day holiday weekend when the call came in Sunday, July 7, to join a search for a missing lifeguard in Newport Beach.
“Lifeguards worked their tails off; they were wet all day,” said Capt. Tom Trager, physically assisting swimmers and waders surprised by a strong undertow and widespread rip currents.
With hundreds of people remaining in the 73-degree water well into the evening hours and red flag conditions posted late Saturday and throughout Sunday, guards were asked to remain on duty til 7 p.m. at all of the city’s 31 towers. Laguna guards patrol beaches from Irvine Cove to Treasure Island Beach, while a contractor, OC Guards, based in Dana Point, takes responsibility for the coastline between Aliso Beach south through Three Arch Bay.
“It took an effort like that to keep the beaches safe,” said Trager, describing “a perfect storm” of warm air and water temperatures and a legal holiday to draw an estimated 165,000 people to Laguna’s shores over the three-day period. “It was overwhelming, but we did it,” said Trager, struggling to find an adjective to describe the test of endurance and alertness born by the city’s guards.
Despite the local demands, Laguna sent two members of its dive team to join the three-hour hunt for Ben Carlson, a 15-year veteran lifeguard who swam out to save a distressed swimmer in six to eight-foot waves near Newport’s 16th Street about 5 p.m. Sunday. The swimmer Carlson swam out to save made it back to shore, but Carlson failed to resurface in the turbulent water after being hit by a towering wave. His body was found about 8 p.m., the first on-duty death in the division’s 100-year history.
“We’re feeling so good about our efforts and then to hear that was numbing,” Trager said. “We had a 1,000 rescues just like what he was going through. We’re all taken aback.”
And even as Carlson’s body was being recovered, Laguna’s guards received yet another emergency call Sunday at 8:41 p.m. A pair of swimmers fell prey to a rip current near Lagunita that was sweeping them from shore, outside the rocky Goff Island point.
The current carried the two swimmers 250 yards north to Victoria Beach. One of the two was propelled back to shore by waves and guards arrived in time to help the second from the surf line. “They are lucky to be alive,” said Trager. “The surf was gigantic.”
Gentle green flag conditions on Friday morning at West Street Beach turned treacherous by 3 p.m. Lifeguards began roaming the beach, checking on every person in the water, said Chris DuRee, 30, of Anaheim Hills, who visits West Street and his godmother, Robin Levinson, every summer weekend.
But huge waves and a ferocious undertow started pounding the beach. “I’ve never seen waves drag people in,” said DuRee, who with his brother, mother and another bystander helped pull out a woman and then two children, all of whom were near the ocean’s edge when overtaken by unexpectedly powerful surf.
As DuRee emerged from the surf line wondering why the lifeguards hadn’t beat him to one rescue, he saw they were preoccupied with helping an injured bather on a stretcher. “The civilians on the beach were just as alert as the lifeguards,” DuRee said.
But the adrenaline rush of life-saving took its toll. When DuRee’s salty and sandy group retreated to Levinson’s house as planned for July 4 festivities, she found her guests emotionally spent. “They were not the life of the party,” Levinson said.