Sept. 23 started as just another beach day at Edwards Boulevard, in Long Beach, for Rhame Avenue Elementary School Principal Erik Walter and his friend Gregory Dressel. The two Long Beach residents were enjoying the uncharacteristically warm weather at around 3:30 p.m. when they heard a woman on the shore shouting for help.
Walter and Dressel, a television production assistant in New York City, ran to the jetty and saw two young girls struggling to stay afloat. “When we looked up and we heard these two girls screaming for help and begging for somebody to save their lives, we just jumped into the water,” Walter said, noting that he and Dressel have no ocean rescue training. He added that the girls were caught in a rip current, which were frequent at the time, with hurricanes raging through the Atlantic Ocean.
“They probably fell off the jetty into the water,” Walter said, adding that he and Dressel called 911, but couldn’t wait for help to arrive. Another bystander, Will Jelbert, an author in New York City, also heard the screams and swam to the girls. The men grabbed the girls and then tried — and failed — to fight their way through the strong, fast-moving current back to shore. Instead they were pulled toward the jetty, where they frantically pushed the girls to the rocks. The girls appeared to be only half conscious, and were vomiting water.
“If we didn’t swim out there, I honestly don’t think those girls would’ve made it,” Walter said.
After they helped the girls, the men were faced with a new problem: saving themselves. “We were caught in their situation,” Walter continued. “We couldn’t swim to shore because of the current, so we were smashed into the rocks, and found ourselves trapped in between the jagged jetty rocks.”
He and Dressel pulled themselves up onto the jetty, scraping their legs and feet. The girls were pulled to safety by firefighters and treated by emergency personnel, according to fire officials.
“They swallowed too much water and had difficulty breathing,” Long Beach Fire Chief Joe Miller said of the girls, who were not identified. They also suffered minor injuries, he added, and were transported to South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside for further evaluation. Walter and Dressel were taken to an urgent-care center, where they were given tetanus shots and antibiotics to ward off potential infections. Jelbert said he also sustained scrapes to his legs.
“I don’t know their names or who they are, and I hope they’re OK,” Walter said, “but we saved those two girls’ lives.” Reached nearly a week after the incident, he said, “The thoughts going through my head initially were, ‘I have to run in and save these girls because there is no help in sight’ … It was scary being out of energy, trapped in the same current and trying to stay afloat.” Walter said that he and Dressel were “healing up nicely” and despite being a little sore, the cuts and bruises were getting better.
The incident was one of many water rescues involving emergency crews and bystanders that occurred that weekend, when the beach was crowded because of the sweltering heat. Lifeguards went off duty after Labor Day, and beachgoers are prohibited from entering the water when they are not present.
Firefighters, emergency crews and off-duty guards rushed to the beaches at National, Edwards and Riverside boulevards the following day as well, when swimmers entered the 66-degree water despite the dangerously rough surf.
“We pulled out around 15 people,” Miller said. “Our water rescue team and mutual aid ambulances assisted,” he added, noting that a team of lifeguards, who were taking care of postseason duties, ran into the water to save the swimmers, a few of whom also had minor injuries and ended up at South Nassau.
On Sept. 25, the Fire Department responded to reports of two male swimmers who were in distress at Lindell Boulevard beach at about 2 p.m. They made their way to shore before firefighters could help them. “They were exhausted, but we gave them oxygen and they looked fine,” Miller said, adding that they refused further medical attention.
As for the two girls who nearly drowned on Sept. 23, Walter said that he and Dressel had not been in touch with them, but he hoped they were OK and learned a lesson from the ordeal. “We hope they are feeling better and have a better understanding of the dangers in the ocean moving forward,” he said.
Mike Smollins contributed to this story.