As Hurricane Earl crept north along the Eastern Seaboard Thursday evening, riptide warnings were issued up and down the coastline and emergency management officials from across the region prepared for the worst this Labor Day weekend, Kristen Caulfield’s work had unsuspectingly only just begun.
The 18-year-old from Rockville Centre had already put in a full day, to say the least. The new school year started two days before, and Thursday was just her second day of classes at Nassau Community College, where she’s pursuing a liberal arts degree.
From there, she went straight to her job: lifeguarding beachgoers at the Atlantic Beach Club in Atlantic Beach. Due to Hurricane Earl, the sea was exceptionally volatile that day—dangerous to even experienced swimmers and surfers. Afterward, she walked to another nearby beach club to meet up with her boyfriend at about 7 p.m.
Shouts from about a dozen people along the shore, however, quickly diverted her attention. She ran down to investigate. Onlookers pointed out to the sea. A man was struggling in the water, some 100 yards from shore.
Fellow lifeguards wrapped a 600-foot tow rope around Caulfield before she dove into the unforgiving surf to save the distressed man. About 15 people grabbed hold of it on shore to pull them back in.
“I was scared, but my job is to risk my own life to get other people,” she tells the Press from the Atlantic Beach Club’s lifeguard shack Sunday. “I was just thinking that I need to get to him in time before he fully submerges underwater and loses consciousness.”
Reaching him was only half the battle, however.
“I put the rope on him, and the first time, he took it off, and they pulled me in—and then I had to fight against everyone pulling me,” she explains. “Then I just bear-hugged him the second time. I had the rope, and I just bear-hugged him and we both held the rope.”
The teenager, in her second season lifeguarding at Atlantic Beach Club, coughed up seawater once she and the swimmer, 58-year-old Mike Gimpel, were dragged on to shore. They were both checked out at Long Beach Hospital and Caulfield was back guarding the beach Friday.
Flowers now adorn her locker, she says, left with a sign that reads: “Lifeguard Hero Was Born Here.” A woman at a local deli is naming a sandwich after her, the “Kristen Hero or something,” Caulfield laughs.
A coworker tells the Press Caulfield’s daring rescue would have been “impossible” if she and others on the beach that day hadn’t remained clear-headed and acted as a team.
“Because I think instinctively most people would swim out to rescue, but then you’d have two people in danger,” she says. “Nobody, no matter how strong of a swimmer they were, could have done it on their own.”
“Remember: Swim near a lifeguard,” reminds the fellow lifeguard.
Gimpel has since paid Caulfield a visit and apologized for the ordeal.