Drownings Rise in Miami Beach as Lifeguards Demand More Help

Dillon Charles peered out the window of the ­Fontainebleau and ­finally saw sunshine. For three days, rain had threatened to ruin his summer vacation. Soon he would have to head back to Brooklyn to his wife, six kids, and a backbreaking construction job. But not yet.

Charles stripped down to his swim shorts and sloshed into the Atlantic with a female friend. The water rose to their chests and then to their necks. Suddenly, the sand gave way under their feet and they could feel themselves being sucked away from shore.

A wave crashed on their heads. Charles swallowed the sea. Despite being born on the Caribbean island of Grenada, he wasn't much of a swimmer. Now it felt as if he were inside a giant washing machine.

"Help!" his friend screamed, struggling to keep her head above the surface. "Help us!"

A rip current tugged at their ankles. Waves slapped their faces. Salt water forced its way into their mouths, their noses, their lungs.

When assistance arrived minutes later, it wasn't Miami Beach lifeguards but Fontaine­bleau cabana boys. It was also too late. As the woman hacked up water, she could hear sirens in the distance. Charles lay motionless on the sand next to her.

"There were no lifeguards," says the woman, who asked not to be named but whose story is confirmed by police reports. "I had to yell so much to get the attention of [the cabana boys]. I think they thought I was playing. But when people are thrashing around in the water, they're not playing. They're drowning."

The June 6, 2012 incident was never reported in the news. In fact, few drownings ever make headlines in Miami Beach, where tourism drives the economy. But there is an ugly truth beneath the sparkling surface of this tropical paradise. Every year, people die on these idyllic shores. With drownings on the rise, according to numbers compiled by New Times, some lifeguards say a lack of resources and employees is to blame.

Lifeguards point out that as the number of visitors to Miami Beach has soared over the past decade, the number of lifeguards has remained static. Despite record resort tax revenues, lifeguards complain they lack basic lifesaving equipment. And instead of adding watchtowers to areas that need them — such as the beach in front of the Fontainebleau — the city is considering additional cuts.

"People are dying because politicians don't want to spend money on public safety," says one lifeguard, who asked not to be named for fear of losing his job. "But the public has no idea what is really happening."

Ocean Rescue officials deny politics are putting people at risk, and argue some deaths are simply unavoidable.

"Could we have more [lifeguards]? Sure, that would be a great thing," says operations supervisor Scott Reynolds. "Is it the reason for any of the fatalities that have happened? No, that has nothing to do with it. It has to do with rip currents, preexisting medical conditions, and alcohol."

Drownings aren't new in Miami Beach. The island's powerful rip currents have claimed tourists every year since Americans began arriving en masse in the 1920s. When the Fontainebleau and other luxury hotels went up in the 1950s, so did drownings.

For decades, however, swimmers entered the water at their own risk. There were only a handful of towers along the eight-mile stretch of sand. As a result, at least 18 people died on unguarded beaches between 1979 and 1984. In 1982, for example, 80-year-old New Yorker Erna Hausey drowned at 26th Street, six blocks from the nearest lifeguard.

It wasn't until a double drowning made national news in 1997 that the city was forced to take the issue more seriously. On February 20 of that year, best-selling smooth-jazz musician Zachary Breaux dove into the water near 29th Street to save a drowning woman, but he too was caught in the current. Both died.

Breaux's wife sued the city. She argued that Miami Beach had parking, showers, and concessions for the public, but no lifeguards for 17 blocks. Nor were there signs warning of rip currents. The Florida Supreme Court found in her favor, ruling that cities must post either lifeguards or clear warnings.

Two months after the tragedy, the city built a new lifeguard tower at 29th Street. In the 17 years since, seven other stands have been added ad hoc — almost always after a drowning. The last one was erected in 2005, bringing the total to 29.

The number of drownings per year fell sharply from 18 in 2005 to only three in 2011, according to city statistics. But police and coroner records obtained by New Times show that in the past two years, the numbers have risen again. In 2012, six people drowned in Miami Beach. Last year, it was nine. (Ocean Rescue records show only two drownings in 2013, however, and Reynolds said he couldn't comment on the discrepancy because he hadn't seen the other records.) But lifeguards back up New Times' numbers, saying drownings have risen with the number of tourists.