Lapse of Judgment

My daughter Kai and I were perched at the top of the drop-off laughing uncontrollably. She was in my lap and we were about to slide down the algae covered surface into a swirling pool of water. The water rushed past us as we barely kept ourselves from shooting down the natural slide. She is good at letting me know when I’m pushing her too far and too fast. She said she wanted me to go first and then let her know how it was. We’d watched an older local man slide down numerous times with no problems, and he’d even gone head first a few times. I was confident it would be nothing but fun, but still acquiesced and went down alone.

After an exhilarating drop I landed in a small pool. Laughing, I waved at Kai and started to climb out. The surface was steep and covered with algae and I slipped back in. Suddenly, I was pulled by a current back to where the water entered the pool in a small waterfall. It pushed me down for a moment and I popped up back near the rock. I motioned for Kai to hold off until I was out and made a second unsuccessful attempt. Suddenly, it wasn’t so funny. I felt like I could get myself out eventually after trying some other strategies, but wasn’t at all sure that Kai could. And I was pretty sure I’d have some trouble getting both of us out if we circled around and around together in the hydraulic.

On my fourth attempt the older gentleman appeared on the side of the pool and nonchalantly extended a helping hand so I could scramble up on the dry rock. All I could think about was Kai, with her little body being pushed by the water into the slide. I looked up and she was barely keeping herself from sliding down. Running the calculation through  my head I motioned for her to stay in place and asked the man to stay where he was in case I didn’t get to her in time. I could hear her laughing and yelling that she couldn’t hang on. I scrambled up the steep, rocky surface and got to her just in time to see her manage to pull herself over the back of the rushing water to the safety of the pool behind it.

After several very vivid nightmares about this I’m coming to terms with how close a call this was. I’ve spent most of my life honing rescue and prevention skills and have saved several hundred people. But, in this case, I did what we always advise tourists who visit our beaches not to do. We were having so much fun hiking and swimming and playing that I let my guard down and took a risk that could have caused something serious to happen to either my daughter, me, or the man who pulled me out.

A momentary lapse in judgment around water can be a big deal.


I wound my way through the 6 foot high coral heads looking at all the beautiful animals in the tidal pools. There were starfish of every imaginable color, really big sea urchins, and colorful fish trapped in the pools by the receding tide. The bright African sun shone down from a blue sky speckled with wispy clouds.

I was young, maybe 23 or so. I looked up and was surprised to see a thin, beautiful woman about my age wearing a batik wrap, white t-shirt, and a yellow headdress. And she had an enormous octopus draped over her shoulders with tentacles brushing her ankles. She smiled and asked me in Swahili if I wanted some of it. Back then I spoke enough to refuse politely. She asked me where I was going and I pointed out towards the edge of the reef, maybe half a mile further out. I couldn’t make out what she said, but it was pretty clear she thought that was a bad idea. So I did what any 23 year old male would have done.

Making my way to the edge of the reef I couldn’t believe how beautiful the ocean was. I’d been traveling for some time inland and Zanzibar was the first beach I’d been to in almost a year and a half. I couldn’t resist and set my clothes on the top of a large coral head and picked my way gingerly to the edge of the reef and dove in. The water was perfect and I swam out and caught a few body surfing waves. After a bit I noticed the dry area I’d entered from was no longer dry. I suddenly realized why the young woman was so concerned. Even though I was basically right on the equator, meaning that the tides don’t vary that much, the flat long beach was starting to fill with water. I was almost a mile from the beach.

Slipping on my sandals, shirt, and pack I started wading back to shore. At first it was pretty easy. The water was so clear I could easily avoid the sea urchins and, as long as I was careful, it was easy to find a foot hold. But progress was slow and the water kept rising. Eventually it was up to my waist and was rushing like a river through barnacle encrusted coral and rocks. By then I couldn’t see where I stepped and had already gotten caught by sea urchins a couple of times.

I stopped and breathed and thought for a minute. I still had half a mile to go. Something from a Red Cross lifesaving class came to mind, so I pulled out my rain jacket and tied knots in the sleeves. Inflating it, I lay on top of it. I steered my makeshift raft through the coral without touching the ground until I was close to shore.

I noticed some villagers laughing. I was glad to provide entertainment, but was really happy to have had that lifeguard training!


The weather last weekend was a good dry run for the emergency services. With the mix of a low in the Gulf, the incredibly powerful hurricane crossing over from Mexico, and a strong frontal system converging all around the same time no one knew exactly how bad it would get.

There are a lot of decisions riding on the weather forecast. Everything from when to move equipment off the beach to what areas are likely to become dangerous flooded roadways depend on the prediction. As always, our area National Weather Service Office came through with outstanding support. They went into overtime and started pumping out the latest information in the form of reports that included everything from rainfall amounts to tidal information and areas of the county that would be most heavily impacted. They also liaised with the Beach Patrol and other groups to put out coastal marine reports that include feedback from those of us on the ground. One of the most significant groups they support are the county and city Emergency Management (EOC) Offices.

The EOC offices then push that information along with real time information about specific areas that are affected out to the public and Emergency Services. In this particular case the City of Galveston EOC made the call to staff the call center throughout the event and to partially activate the Galveston Marine Response (GMR) program. This was not done lightly but looking at the potential hazard and consulting with the various emergency response agencies they felt better to be safe than to risk under reacting and have to play catch-up once things were developing.

Once activated, three teams comprised of members with various skill sets joined up and based themselves at 3 strategic fire stations so they could provide response to sections of the island if cut off. Each team combined had the following capabilities- water rescue, medical, law enforcement, communications. Each had a high water vehicle and a boat. A leader was appointed to each team so that each could operate independently if communications were cut off. Once the team members were “on loan” from the Police, Fire, or Beach Patrol they operate under the management of the Emergency Operation Center and the GMR Steering Committee throughout the event. A full activation would involve more teams and people and we would even rotate working teams out and replace them with fresh bodies while the first teams recovered and prepared to be re-deployed.

Fortunately, the event wasn’t too severe. The majority of the flooding ended up happening during the night when few people were out moving around. There was some flooding in specific areas from the high tides and all the rain, but it subsided fairly quickly. The teams ended up only responding to a couple of minor things.

The exercise is valuable though, as it will make things smoother when a big event happens and shows how much greater the whole is than the sum of its parts.

Car In The Water

“Beach Patrol, car in the water 8 mile road bayside. Occupants possibly trapped inside”.

A call we dread, particularly at night. Supervisor Mary Stewart was on call for Beach Patrol last Tuesday. Supervisor/Officer Austin Kirwin happened to be near the radio and asked if she wanted assistance, which she wisely accepted. Water call at night can be pretty scary at night no matter how well trained you are. Each of our year round staff members has been there and is quick to help each other out.

The 911 dispatcher followed protocol and dispatched the lifeguards first, then all the other emergency responders. In a water emergency it doesn’t make sense to have a police officer or paramedic arriving first and waiting a long time until a lifeguard gets there to enter the water. Life threatening events typically develop much faster in water than on land.

Once Beach Patrol was on the way the dispatcher called the rest of the “Galveston Marine Response” group which for this call included police, fire, EMS, and Jamaica Beach Fire and Rescue. While on the way they all switched to the shared “Marine Response” channel and coordinated their resources. When the Fire Department arrived they set up lights and located the vehicle. Police blocked off the area and EMS staged for a potential medical emergency.

Austin arrived to find the car still floating after blasting off the end of the road. It was about 70 yards from the shore and a man in a white shirt was sitting cross legged on the roof. He grabbed his rescue board and a tube and got there quickly. Upon arrival he first asked if there was anyone else in the car. The man said there wasn’t. After a short conversation to assess the mental status of the man and a quick look inside the car, Austin was able to get him onto the rescue board and paddled him to safety, where he was checked out by EMS and Fire. He was later transported by EMS to the emergency room.  While being rescued the man asked how he ended up on top of the now barely floating car. Once he had completed the rescue, Austin went back out to the car to recheck for other victims.

The Police Dive team was assembling and Sergeant John Courtney and Mary Stewart went in the Jamaica Beach Boat to join Austin in checking the vehicle. They found nothing and towed the bobbing vehicle close enough for a wrecker to hook up to it. The headlights were still on as divers double checked for victims.

So while the rest of the island slept the Galveston Marine Response worked seamlessly to rescue yet another person from a near catastrophe. Each of these groups has budgets that are pinched tighter and tighter each year but they still find a way to make rescues like this happen. Austin didn’t have to respond to that call but he and the men and women of each of the GMR participating agencies know that their efforts make a huge difference.

Early Run

The air had just a tinge of pre-dawn chill and the sun peeked over the water as I started my early morning run. The rays were touching the tops of buildings and were moments from hitting us as I jogged past the woman sitting hunched over and alone on the seawall bench.

She must have heard my footsteps. She suddenly turned to me with a big smile and said, “Wow!”, then looked back over the tranquil water.

As I continued to run, my lungs expanded and the blood flowed more easily. My attention turned away from little aches and pains as I settled into a pace. As I drew inward I reflected on the woman. Sometimes someone who is not from here has to remind us how beautiful it can be and how lucky we are to live so close to the ocean. I thought about how she must be feeling while the early rays touched her face and she felt and smelled the salty breeze.

For Galveston locals the early morning beach time often involves an early commute to work or morning exercise. Our minds are cluttered as we run through what the day will bring or dwell on our latest issues. But to travel and remove yourself from your routine enables you to live a little more in the moment. To focus on things more clearly. Beaches are a vehicle to get closer to the natural environment if we’re open.

Living in one of the places that people go to get away from their life and renew themselves can be a challenge. We’re just getting used to driving down the seawall without someone pulling some crazy, no-signal-making lane change or abrupt speed alteration. Living in a west end beach house  is getting quieter without the summer parties in all the neighborhood rental houses and it’s a welcome change to walk out the door without having to clean someone’s beer cans off my yard. But all the little annoyances are a small price to pay for the time of year we just entered. And tourists are the reason that many of the nice things we enjoy in Galveston exist, so it’s not a bad trade off.

Beautiful empty beaches and a perfect air and water temperature don’t last long in the fall and spring but they are sure wonderful if we can take the time to get the same joy from them as the tourists do when they visit. These are the times that make it worth living here.

On my way back I saw the woman on the bench staring out to the ocean, a smile on her lips. She didn’t acknowledge me this time and appeared to be deep in thought. Looking closely I noticed her head was wrapped in a bandana and she had deep, dark bags under her eyes. I realized how much she must have been going through and felt grateful she found some solace on the beach this beautiful morning.

Sharkbite Reflections

If you somehow missed all the media coverage this week, a 13 year old boy from Odessa was bitten by a shark last Monday. He and his brother were swimming around 37th street and noticed fish swimming all around them. One fish even hit him which caused them to start towards shore. When they were in about chest deep the boy was bit on the back of the leg near the ankle. He reached down and was bit again on the hand.

We believe this shark was feeding on mullet and bit the boy by accident. These bites are very different than a shark attack, where the person is the intended prey.

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a dog bite than being bitten by a shark. In the past 25 years we’ve responded to or received reports of 9 or so shark bites on the island. No doubt there are others, especially incidents with fishermen, but the number is very small. With around 6 million tourists visiting the island a year, the math works out pretty good… for the swimmers. If we assume 5 million people swim a year in the beach, there have been 125 million swimmers in Galveston’s water that would give us a 1 in just under 14 million chance of getting bit when we swim.

I’m sure that number wouldn’t make this young man feel better, but sounds like his bites could have been way worse. It also helped him that his brother reportedly beat back the shark and applied pressure with a towel until Beach Patrol and EMS responded- and that the response times were both under a minute from receiving the 911 call.

Aside from avoiding swimming in river mouths or in areas where bays and estuaries meet the ocean, there are a number of precautions you can take to reduce your chances of an unpleasant encounter with a shark while swimming in Galveston:

1. Avoid Swimming in the middle of schooling fish- Sharks eat fish and could grab a hand or leg by accident. Even though the most likely scenario is for them to release and go for easier prey, that one bite could do some damage. This is the typical scenario I’ve seen in the handful of shark bites I’ve worked through the years.

2. Shuffle your feet- When you drag your feet in a sort of “ice skating motion” you send out vibrations. Small sharks, stingray, fish, etc will try to get away from you. If you don’t step on them they won’t try to fight back.

3. Don’t swim while bleeding- Sharks are extremely sensitive to the smell of blood and can detect a very small amount.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the young man as he, hopefully, works towards a full recovery. We are also thankful to work and play at a beach that has so few of these types of incidents compared to others around the country and around the world.

Brian Kyle Letter

Brian Kyle, who is the Lead Meteorologist for our local weather office, wrote the following:

Whistles were going nuts on the beach. Initially, I didn’t think much of it. I figured it was the Galveston Island Beach Patrol directing unknowing swimmers away from one of the many rock groins where deadly rip currents are frequently located.

But something was different on that afternoon. I was pushing my daughter into waves on her surfboard that day. The whistles kept going. And going. And going.

I glanced toward the beach and saw people pointing to the horizon. Near the end of the groin a 3-4 year old boy was thrashing & panicking as he was caught in a rip current. I pushed my daughter in on a wave and I swim over to help. As I got there the lifeguard was already arriving! The boy’s panicking mother nearby as well! The guard rescued the boy. I took off my rashguard and handed one end to the mother.

There are several things that stand out to me. First, I thought about how well trained, fit, and proactive the lifeguards are. They love what they do and are humble. (I’ve been told by multiple career lifeguards about rarely being thanked for saving lives!). I also think about the training I’ve learned from them – don’t become a victim yourself by trying to save someone – hence giving the woman my shirt instead of my hand.

Another thing is we both kind of knew this type of scenario would have a pretty good chance of happening that weekend. I work for the National Weather Service. Our office had been watching computer models indicating the potential for nice, warm weather but probably also above normal waves. Peter Davis and his crew at Galveston Island Beach Patrol knew that combination would be cause for concern. They knew favorable weekend weather early in the beach season would draw large crowds. But they also knew many visitors would be unprepared for the surf.

The Galveston Island Beach Patrol has served as an exceptional partner to the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service Forecast Office since the 1990’s. During this time period, the lifeguards have served as hazardous weather observers and have reported timely beach conditions and rip current information to our weather forecast office on a routine basis (now daily).

This has made our job easier as coordinated information, statements, warnings from both agencies have played a critical role to the mission of safeguarding and protecting the lives of the five to seven million patrons that visit beaches along the upper Texas coast each year.

In addition, under the leadership of Chief Peter Davis, the Galveston Island Beach Patrol contributions have played key roles to the NWS research community, and have also helped shape the local and national rip current and lightning awareness programs.

In recognition for the exceptional service and contributions they provide, both locally and nationally, the National Weather Service presented Galveston Island Beach Patrol a Special Service Award on September 22nd for their much appreciated efforts!

Rolled G-Town

The large man crawled slowly out from under the bush where he’d been sheltering from the mid morning sun. As he emerged with considerable difficulty, using a crutch to support his weight, his swollen  and bruised face became visible under a bloody bandage wrapped around his head.

The man was in his early 60s and was traveling with two men and a woman who all appeared to be in their early 20s. They had come up to me and asked me to help their friend. They said they’d all come from a small town in Louisiana to spend Labor Day weekend in Galveston. The man had driven them and they’d been staying at a small motel while enjoying the sights and the beach.

On Tuesday morning very early, the man had gone out to stretch his legs while the younger crew slept. It was not unusual for him to be woken up by the pain caused by injuries sustained in the Marine Corps years ago. He was walking to the store to get a coffee when a young man approached him asking if he’d help his grandmother with something in the neighboring apartment complex. The man, being from a small town, took the request at face value and followed the young guy around a corner where two other guys rolled him. They took his car keys, wallet and even tried to take his pants off. When he resisted they beat him with a club and kicked him until he was unconscious.

Fortunately, someone saw it and called 911. The EMS came and took him to the hospital where they patched him up  and the police took a report. He somehow made it back to where his friends were but no one had any money. They left the hotel and went to a bank to try to get some help. He wanted to transfer money from his account in Louisiana so he could get a key made for his truck, buy food and gas, and get back home. He said the bank told him he needed an account or they couldn’t help him. He asked for a ride to the grocery store.

On the way to the store I gave him some money so he and his friends could eat and asked if he had any ID. Having none and thinking that they’d need it , I asked if he had a contact for his bank back home. He had the number so I let him use my phone. We ended up getting his bank to talk to our local Bank of America branch directly. They couldn’t have been nicer. I left him well on the way to receiving money with the bank staff being courteous and professional despite his rough appearance.

You never know where you will (or won’t) get help when you most need it, but many thanks to the staff at the Bank of America for doing what they could to make this horrible experience right for one of our guests.



Thank You SSN Groups

Sometimes it seems like we all scurry about for most of our lives. The politics, games, gluttony, maneuvering, manipulation and acquisition of things is a fantastic distraction. If not careful we can get so caught up that it completely disconnects us from what really matters.

There are times in all of our lives when critical things happen. Birth and death, tragedy and events that cause intense joy give us an opportunity to touch something real. One of the most important things we can tap into is the opportunity to be present and supportive when others are going through these critical junctures in their lives. There’s always a reason that we can’t be there, always something that seems more critical. But if we take a moment to weigh the options there are few things that truly take precedence in the big picture. Unfortunately, many people and organizations miss these opportunities because we are scurrying around dealing with whatever it is that we’re so busy doing all the time that we don’t really remember afterwards.

I would like to acknowledge a few groups that made it a point to be there when it was most needed. First is the Jesse Tree, with its wonderful group of volunteers and too few paid staff members. The Jesse Tree has worked against insurmountable odds to keep their doors open and continue to serve a variety of populations with no other recourse. It’s a true calling for them and it’s been an inspiration and honor to work alongside them. The Jesse Tree/Beach Patrol Survivor Support has been busy this year and responded to a number of tragic drowning deaths and aquatic accidents. But they haven’t had to go it alone.

Thank you to several Galveston businesses and volunteers for their commitment and support.

There were many hotels. The Red Roof Inn at 5914 Seawall Blvd were there with rooms and meeting spaces and more for multiple events. The Commodore on the Beach Hotel, 3618 Seawall Blvd., Four Points by Sheraton, 2300 Seawall Blvd., Gaido’s Seaside Inn, 3700 Seawall Blvd., Best Western Plus Seawall Inn & Suites by the Beach, 102 Seawall Blvd. all came forward when most needed at no benefit to themselves.

In several of these situations a gathering room was provided for large groups of family members so they could have a place to commune during a search which lasted days. Rooms were provided for sleeping as well. But when people are grieving its critical to make sure both body and spirit are nourished. Restaurants such as Tortuga’s at 6010 Seawall Blvd and The Float Pool and Patio Bar at 2828 Seawall Blvd volunteered food, as did the Lighthouse Charity Cooking Team.

Support also came from the Galveston County Emergency Response Team, who searched tirelessly, and from EZ Bike Rental at 4712 Seawall Blvd and Galveston Real Estate Resource.

Anyone interested in supporting and/or participating with The Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network, please call Sheila Savage at 409-771-2545.

All of these groups honor our community and represent the best in and of us.

Elbow Grease

“I take care of my kids m*****..! Don’t tell me how to raise my boy!” the man yelled.

Veins bulged from his tatted neck, his hands were shaking, and a little spittle was running down  the side of his mouth. A large group of men in their early 20s looked on seeing which way it was going to go.

It was right before dark on the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. We were on Boddecker drive behind several rows of cars. Backup would take a long time to get to me if it was even available.

I held my hands out in front of me palms open. I tried to sound calm. “Look, no one is telling you how to take care of your kid. I’m sure you’re a great dad. It’s just that we’ve warned this group of people your with more than 10 times to stay out of the water in the ship channel and your 4 year old was out to his neck really near where that water runs out. Its deep there. We had 6 children drown there in one year a while back. All I’m saying is not to let him in the water from now on.”

The moment passed. He stayed mad but got himself in check. I got the feeling his kid wouldn’t go back in. I reminded myself what we tell the rookie guards. “You don’t have to win the argument. You just have to get them to comply.” Kind of like the key to a happy marriage is based on the question, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”. I moved on to the next group and started with the same opener, “Hi! Has anyone been by to explain the rules and about how dangerous the water is yet?…”

The last thing my crew and I wanted to be doing as darkness fell last Sunday was going on foot to group after group explaining why they couldn’t keep going back in the water in the ship channel after we made announcements. We really wanted to drive away as night fell and hope for the best. But there were several hundred people that would be there well into the night, and many of them were… argumentative. Most of the groups had small children with them that they kept letting back in the water right after the announcements and directly in front of the bilingual, iconic no swimming/wading signs.

I’m convinced if the city hadn’t had the foresight to prohibit parking on the road and, instead to require them to park in designated areas that are a ways away from the most dangerous areas, we would have lost someone. I’m also sure if we hadn’t talked to each group directly last Sunday we’d be dealing with a drowning death, most likely of a small child.

Having the right system out there is vital. But sometimes good lifeguarding requires elbow grease and  comes down to one on one communication.