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Swim At Your Own Risk

Recent drownings emphasize beach safety

By Samantha Batel and Natalie Crnosija

Earlier this week, two dozen sixth-graders from Columbia Second School for Math, Science and Engineering in Harlem embarked on a field trip to Long Beach with three chaperones.

Signs at the beach warned no lifeguards were on duty and swimming was prohibited. Yet several members of the group entered the water.


Twelve-year-old Nicole Suriel lost her life, potentially to a rip current.

On June 6, Brooklynites Deng Zheng and Xiangyong Chen also stepped into the South Shore surf for the last time.

The two friends, Zheng, 26, and Chen, 31, went swimming off an unsupervised swath of Cupsogue Beach County Park in Westhampton. Fifty yards out, they were dragged into the Atlantic Ocean by powerful channels of water flowing away from the shoreline—known as riptides. Their friends onshore flagged down lifeguards, who were practicing drills nearby. The rescuers pulled Zheng from the waves and performed CPR. Ten others formed a line parallel to the shore and searched for Chen.

Don’t Swim Here: Beachgoers at Sunken Meadow State Park ignore posted warnings prohibiting swimming without lifeguards on duty. (Long Island Press)

Zheng was pronounced dead at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead that afternoon. Chen is still missing.

There was a riptide alert at Cupsogue that day, as well as signage prohibiting swimming in the area where the two entered the water.

“If it’s hot, windy and there are riptides, those are A-plus conditions [for a dangerous situation],” explains Joseph Montuori, commissioner of Suffolk County Parks, who went to the scene upon receiving the emergency call.

These tragic drownings were the most recent to occur off unsupervised South Shore beaches this summer. On May 26, Emmanuel Tiburcio of Brooklyn, 19, drowned off Long Beach and Eugene Theodore, Jr. of Queens, 22, off Jones Beach State Park. As the summer unfolds and more and more people look to town, state and county beaches for fun, officials emphasize the importance of heeding warnings, swimming only in supervised areas and being aware of riptides—which can drag even experienced swimmers out to sea in the blink of an eye.

“If you look at these drownings islandwide and even in the tri-state area, they all seem to happen for the most part when people don’t exercise good judgment and swim in unprotected waters,” explains Deputy Inspector Bruce Meyer of the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD). “And when I say unprotected, I mean there is no lifeguard on duty, and that was the case on May 26.”

Over the past five years, New York has had 10 surf drownings, according to state health department records. Until this season, Nassau County beaches accounted for only one of those. Suffolk County beaches had zero. The four—potentially five drownings, depending on the fate of Chen—so far this summer are testament to the dangers the ocean poses beachgoers.

As Meyer cautions: “These tragic events illustrate the ocean can be very unforgiving.”

At state beaches, such as popular Jones Beach, employees actively patrol the shoreline to prevent unauthorized swimming before the season begins, explains George Gorman, Jr., deputy regional director of New York State Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation. In addition to the patrols, there are “No Swimming” signs on Jones Beach and across the rest of Long Island’s sandy shoreline during the off-season, he says.

Gorman stresses the importance of adhering to these deterrents, emphasizing the crucial function of surf supervision.

“Don’t go in the water or swim where lifeguards are not on duty,” he says. “Lifeguards make sure that nothing will happen to you.”

Yet not everyone honors those warnings. As the signs are put into storage and the summer season warms up, on-duty lifeguards and park staff can prevent drowning tragedies, explains New York State Parks Police Sergeant Dan Lammens. But state and county vigilance can only be so effective if swimmers don’t take responsibility for their own safety, he adds.

“If it’s unprotected areas and if it’s after hours, people take the risks and go into the water,” Lammens says. “It’s tough. You feel for everybody who’s involved, especially the families.”

Meyer stresses that for each drowning, there are many successful rescues: “There are so many water rescues that are seconds away from death and they don’t make the news.”

Lifeguards can save thousands of swimmers during a single summer, adds Jones Beach lifeguard Don Kramer, from his towering white chair overseeing Field Six.

“Some days, we run 150 to 200 rescues,” says the 34-season veteran.

A typical response to water distress at Jones Beach involves the combined efforts of lifeguards, local police, state park police and the U.S. Coast Guard. Lifeguards are the first line of defense against drownings, warning people of riptides and dangerous areas. If people don’t heed warnings, or are swept away by a current out of the reach of lifeguards, police are brought in.

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