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Easter Tragedy

Easter was a beautiful day on the beach. It was sunny and warm with a light breeze with moderate surf. All the beaches were packed and the guards were busy moving them away from the rock groins and other dangerous areas.

A 31 year old man and his 12 year old son walked down to the beach on 35th street. They waded into the cool water and went out to the first sandbar, which is about 20 yards from shore.

I heard a call on the radio from the lifeguard at 37th street that there was a possible drowning. Two of our trucks beat me there during the 5 minutes it took me to reach the area. When I arrived, Beach Patrol Captain Tony Pryor had assumed the role of “Incident Commander”. We had a jet ski team in the water and several guards were diving in the last seen point. A fire fighter had assumed the role of “Safety Officer” and was keeping track of all the people assigned to the various roles, especially the ones in the water. Other firefighters were on the adjacent groins and scanning. Police officers were controlling access to the area and taking information from witnesses and family members. We called the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network team to provide support for the family while we searched.

As I pulled up to the scene and started getting the details from Captain Pryor he spotted something that looked like a shirt in the water. I saw it as well and, upon closer inspection, you could tell it was a body. I ran into the water as Captain Pryor called the Jet Ski team and waved to the swimmers in the area. We converged on it and the crew had the body on the back of the rescue sled and was starting CPR before they even hit the beach. The man was transferred to the back of the Beach Patrol truck as CPR was continued seamlessly. He was again transferred to the waiting EMS unit on the seawall and taken to John Sealy Emergency Room. Jesse Tree re-routed to John Sealy and provided support to the family as they were informed that the man could not be saved. They stayed with them for three full hours counseling, translating, and just being there.

Back on the beach the story that unfolded from witnesses was both heroic and unbearably tragic. The 12 year old son watched his father slip under the water, but survived because a young man that was renting umbrellas in the area spotted him having trouble and rushed out to him, risking his own life so that this 12 year old boy could live. The boy had barely remained afloat after he and his dad separated. The young man got to him just in time and was able to make the rescue.

7 busy hours later, at the end of the day, the Jesse Tree crew met the affected guards at our office for a critical incident stress diffusion.

Teamwork

Calvin Stevens Jr., a new parking attendant, rode his Segue up on the seawall. As he went through his normal routine of helping people park, answering questions about the island, and serving generally as a tourist ambassador he noticed something out of the ordinary. Looking down at the 53rd street groin, he noticed a young man inside the no-swimming area.

Calvin is new to the job but he’s no stranger to Galveston or the beach. His Father, Calvin Stevens Sr. has worked with me in the Park Board system since the late 80’s. He works as a supervisor in the Coastal Zone Management Department. He is very conscientious and serious about his work. Apparently this rubbed off on his son as well.

Calvin Stevens Jr. impressed me at a recent training we put together for “De-escalation and Self Defense Techniques”. I helped the world renowned Grand Master Ishmael Robles teach this course and noticed that Calvin was really focused and serious while still enjoying himself.

As Calvin saw the young man in the no swimming area he waved and yelled telling him not to go any deeper because it was dangerous and pointed at the signs the guy had walked around. The guy heard him but turned around and waded out into the water anyway. Calvin quickly called his Supervisor and told him to call Beach Patrol on the radio. As soon as the guy started walking deeper than his waist he dropped into the hole by the groin and was quickly carried out by the rip current. He struggled briefly then submerged.

Our rescue truck was only 4 blocks away and pulled up within seconds. They saw the guy collapsed on the shoreline. He had drifted out and around the groin and back to shore. He was laying there having trouble breathing and vomiting repeatedly. Our crew stabilized him and got him quickly into an ambulance. He survived and was released from the hospital the next morning.

Calvin has no responsibility to watch the water. He’s definitely busy enough dealing with the hundreds of tourists he comes in contact with each day. But he paid attention when we mentioned the issues with rip currents we have along the seawall. And he was alert and conscientious enough to notice the problem and do something about it.

One thing we’ve been trying to focus on in the Park Board is cross training and increasing communication between departments with the goal of creating a broader network of support for tourists and locals alike. Beach Patrol now teaches all parking attendants, park staff and others first aid and CPR. Along with that we cover topics like how to spot people in trouble and what to do. This de-escalation/self defense course was a trial that we want to repeat with the park staff. And now we are scheduling park staff to join for the rip current presentation of our upcoming Wave Watchers community program.

With people like Calvin Stevens this type of teamwork is a natural fit.  What a great person to represent Galveston!

Jesse Tree Support Network Fundraiser

Scanning the searchers briefly, I then turned to see with relief that a tent had been erected and the family was seated comfortably drinking water and talking to a Jesse Tree councilor who had just arrived…

Thinking back over the past decade I have lost count of the times we’ve worked a drowning on one of our beaches along with our public safety partners and had family members of the victim sitting on the beach looking to us for some type of resolution. We’re good at our primary mission of prevention and also, at rescue and the operational side of a recovery effort. But we’re just not geared for, nor do we have the resources for providing counseling or religions support. Nor do we have the capacity to beat the bushes for hotels to offer free rooms for families that can’t cover the cost or donations of meals, clothing etc. Families in this situation at times also need someone to be a liaison to public safety groups, consulates and embassies, or a network of emotional and spiritual support in their home communities. That’s why I’ll always feel a tremendous gratitude to Ted Hanley and David Mitchell of the Jesse Tree for their willingness to take on this emotionally draining, but critical role at a time that is so needed for these families. The team that has joined them through the years is no less compassionate and willing to step forward and do something that makes a real difference. They have done so much for so many and been amazing ambassadors for the spirit of caring and support that permeates so many people here on our island. And now it’s time for us to help them to help more of our guests. Here is what they are sending out to as many as will hear it and act:

“Tragedy Strikes when we least expect it. For over a decade the Survivor Support Network has responded with consolation, compassionate care, and common sense to the families and friends of drowning victims on Galveston’s beaches. This dedicated team of volunteers meets their immediate needs, while guiding them to the necessary resources in the aftermath of the tragedy. The team also ministers to the needs of the Beach Patrol staff- many of whom risk their own lives to save others and significantly feel the impact of these events. Without this well-trained team, these incidents would simply not offer the dignity and compassion that a loving community can bring to a tragedy. Please support our effort to keep this team on alert as the summer season approaches. The Jesse Tree invites you to support this worthy work by attending a Valentine’s concert fundraising event.”

The event will be held on February 12th at 3pm. Vocalist David W. Mitchell and Pianist Hector Bisio are the entertainment. Tickets are limited and can be reserved by calling 409-762-2233 from 9-11am M-F or by e-mailing info@jessetree.net or visiting www.jessetree.net. The event will be held at the beautiful T-House 1619 Sealy, Galveston, Texas 77550.

Kayak Rescue

The wind was blasting from the west. The sand pelted the lone figure as he dragged his kayak to the water’s edge at Sunny Beach. Wearing waders and a lifejacket, he paddled his kayak from shore into the frothy water.

It was about one o’clock in the afternoon last Sunday as the man’s wife watched him paddle out. She quickly lost sight of him as he attempted to paddle into 30 mile per hour wind and 2-3 foot chop. By three she was completely panicked as she gazed at the empty beach and seemingly empty water. Someone noticed her, asked what was wrong, and called 911.

Beach Patrol and other members of the Galveston Marine Response group responded quickly. Working together, they quickly mounted a search. Because the wind and waves were moving from west, they searched to the east. Nothing. But they found a bystander who had snapped a picture of the man in his kayak off the west end of the seawall as he man was blown out and to the east.

Supervisor Mary Stewart and Sergeant Kris Pompa worked with a couple of officers from the Galveston Police Department to check the area, re-interview the man’s wife in Spanish, and extend the search area all the way to the east end of the island. Still nothing.

As evening approached, they knew that they would be almost ineffective just shining lights out into the water. As each minute went by the chance of a rescue diminished. Mary called the Coast Guard and asked for a helicopter.

As light faded the helicopter ran search patterns while coordinating with the Galveston group who searched near shore. Everyone was starting to give up hope. The water was 62 and the air temperature was dropping which put the wind chill in the 50’s. Someone blown offshore wouldn’t stand much of a chance once their core temperature dropped. The farther offshore you go the bigger the waves and more likely they’d tip a kayak over. It’s a big ocean in the daytime, but at night it’s virtually impossible to find something so small. The rescuers searched into the night.

But our team made the right call when they requested the helicopter. The Coast Guard pilots are almost always very experienced. This one put himself in the right spot and, almost an hour after it was fully dark, his crew spotted the victim using a thermal imager, which detects differences in temperature.

They lowered a walkie-talkie down and the man called up that he was OK. They lifted him with a rescue basket and watched his kayak drift out rapidly. They let our crew know to meet them at the Galveston airport.

The man spent a full 6 hours lost at sea. This is one of the longest searches I remember that resulted in a successful recovery. This guy is alive because of how well the whole team worked together and because they didn’t give up. Kudos to the Galveston Marine Response, Coast Guard, and our crew!

Mary’s Rescue

Last Saturday we almost lost several lives, including one of our lifeguards.

The incident started relatively harmlessly. 5 people were swimming between the Pleasure Pier and the 27th street groin. There was a spot where there was a very weak rip current. A gentle drift that pushing offshore. Most people wouldn’t even notice it. But the 5 people were having a bit of difficulty returning.

The lifeguard from the nearest tower went to check. When the rescue truck made the scene they called in that no one was in distress but that Supervisor Mary Stewart was going to go in and help the guard move them closer to shore.

As they do at times, things escalated rapidly. Three of the victims, escorted by the tower guard’s made it in with minimal help. This is normal stuff. Two of them, a child and a man who went to help the group to shore, were floating on Mary’s rescue tube as she towed them to shore. It was, at this point, a simple rescue like the multitude our guards make each year.

But suddenly Mary was pulled underwater. It seems that the man started panicking. She was instantly catapulted from a situation where she was making a routine rescue, like she has done scores of times in her 11 year career as a lifeguard, to a struggle for her very life and the life of the two people she was trying to help.

As she tried to hold the child up she grappled with the man. There were times she felt like she’d have to make the choice between letting go of the child to try and save herself, or giving up and going down. All three lives hung in the balance.

In Mary’s words, “…someone’s life was slipping from the palm of my hand, as I struggled to maintain mine. The feeling of being someone’s only hope to live, while trying to hold onto your [own life] at the same time is indescribable. In an instance your whole life flashes before your eyes; every struggle, every tear, every laugh, every smile. You don’t realize your own strength until you come face to face with your greatest weakness.”

In the end, her grit, training, fitness level, and fellow lifeguards gave this near tragedy a happy ending. Everyone made it to shore and lived to tell.

Every lifeguard who works enough time faces what Mary faced. A moment when you realize that fitness, training, and good intentions only get you so far. You have to dig deep beyond the physical part of you and draw strength from…somewhere else. And then, after passing though the crucible, you realize what you are and what you are actually capable of.

Mary later wrote, “For those of you fighting unbearable battles or drowning in despair- refuse to give up, refuse to sink… Your real hero is right there holding on to your…hand. And if you hold on long enough , you may just get the chance to be [a hero yourself.”

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!

Canine Rescue

Supervisor/Officer Joe Cerdas was on his way to work early the other day in his personal car. He lives on the west end and was just nearing the end of the seawall. It was in the height of tropical storm Bill and the wind was blasting, so he was driving carefully. Suddenly his radio crackled as an emergency call came through.

Apparently a man had been on the edge of the seawall looking at the huge surf as it bashed against the seawall and sent plumes of foam over the top of the wall. The tide was really high so you could hardly see the rocks at the base of the wall as wave after wave pounded in. His dog became excited and jumped off the wall.

The west end of the seawall has long been a trouble spot for the Beach Patrol. When the current sweeps from west to east people can get caught in the ever present rip current at western side of the wall and swept around in front of the wall. They can’t swim back the way they came, and there’s no beach in front of the seawall. When the tide is high and there are waves, you have to get over the rocks while the waves break on you. Then, you have to find a stairwell, and there aren’t many in the area. We’ve made many dramatic rescues using rescue boards to ride people over the rocks, often with the fire department lifting them up the wall.

As Joe pulled up he looked over the wall to see the 80 pound dog in big trouble. The poor dog’s pads were bleeding from multiple attempts to climb to the top of the wall, only to be repeatedly dragged down the wall between waves.

A GPD K9 unit and the animal control unit arrived right behind Joe.

He grabbed a rope from the animal control unit that was being used to try and lasso the dog. He then asked the officers and bystanders to lower him down the seawall so he could grab it. The plan was that once he had the dog they could pull him up and over the seawall.

He improvised a harness which he tied around himself and was then lowered down the seawall.

His first attempt to grab the dog was unsuccessful as a wave hit them both, causing him to lose his grip as he was tossed around by the powerful surf. On the second wave he was able to grab the dog and place him higher on his shoulder which gave him a more secure grip on the big canine.

As the peace officers and bystanders hauled them up, they were hit by numerous waves which slammed them against the wall. But Joe held fast and didn’t lose his grip.

As they finally neared the top of the wall, Joe passed the dog to his owner, and then he pulled himself over the top of the wall to safety.

All we heard on the radio was:

“Cerdas back in, one canine rescue”.

FOT6AA8

Warming Up

Finally! Spring feels like it’s just around the corner. After the long, long winter there’s finally that feeling in the air. The cold is still there but doesn’t seem to penetrate all the way to your bones and even if it’s cold in the morning you’re able to get by with a thin layer or just a t-shirt by the afternoon.

The water, however, doesn’t seem to know that it’s time for winter to relinquish its grasp. On Tuesday, we did a beach workout and were still wearing full suits and hoods, although boots and gloves weren’t necessary. The water temp was 58. Warmer air temperature means that people on stand up paddleboards have been surfing with either just a wetsuit top or even “bare backing” it while people surfing prone are still in full winter gear.

The spring breakers were undaunted by the cold water though. Each time the sun popped out or the wind died they suddenly appeared all over the beach. The first volleyball tournament of the season went off well at Stewart Beach. The lifeguards, shivering in their towers, had to move a number of them away from the rip currents near the jetties. There were, however, some days where it was just too cold to put the guards in the towers in the mornings. Fortunately we kept a number of them on standby knowing that the afternoon would warm up and as soon as the sun popped out and hundreds would suddenly show up. It seems like there were lots of people here on the island hanging out in restaurants, hotel rooms, The Strand, or one of our many tourist attractions waiting for that ray of sunshine so they could hit the beach.

This weekend is the last of Spring Break. It will be safe to drive down the seawall for a short time until summer is really upon us. No one will meander across the lanes in front of you with speeds varying between 5mph and 45. No one will pull a U-turn, almost hit you, and then post up by a potential parking space, unashamedly blocking traffic, while 5 people take 20 minutes to load two chairs and a cooler into the back of their vehicle. But enjoy it while it lasts, because soon it will be time to retreat to the “secret” way you have to move around the interior of the island!

This weekend the Houston schools and a handful of colleges are at the end of their Spring Break and the weather forecast looks pretty good, so we may see those big crowds we’ve been expecting. As it stands this far, the Beach Patrol has only made one rescue. It was a good one though. We, with the help of our police, fire, and EMS partners, saved a father and daughter from drifting off shore on a really cold north wind day. They likely wouldn’t have survived if someone hadn’t had the good sense to call 911.

And so it begins….