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.

"These deaths are preventable," the first lifeguard says. "But we just don't have enough people."

According to city officials, the Ocean Rescue Department has 66 full-time and 47 part-time lifeguards (plus 11 non-lifeguard employees). But lifeguards say the number is actually more like 64 full-timers and 38 part-timers, and was even lower until a handful of lifeguards were hired in February 2013.

Asked repeatedly by New Times, Reynolds concedes the lower numbers are, indeed, accurate. But he says he hopes the department will soon be at full strength.

In the meantime, that shortfall often leaves lifeguard towers ­dangerously understaffed and some packed stretches of sand particularly vulnerable. Perhaps the most glaringly unguarded zone is behind the island's most iconic hotel. Between May 2012 and July 2013, at least four people drowned behind the Fontainebleau. The reason is easy to see: From 41st to 46th streets — roughly half a mile — there are no lifeguard towers, just thousands of swimmers and some cabana boys to look after them.

That was the case last July 7. Hari Swaraman was in town for a conference. When the event ended, he and friends headed to the beach behind the Fontainebleau. Swaraman was on the sand when he noticed lifeguards rushing into the water. Parambath Sainath — a heavyset Houston shopkeeper — and his 13-year-old son were calling for help.

"The first lifeguard went and got the son," Swaraman says. "But the second lifeguard took some time. He could not get Parambath because of the tide. We all thought that he would come out like his son, but when he came out, he was blue."

A mile north at the 53rd Street tower sat a Jet Ski that lifeguards normally would have used to pull Parambath from the water. But employee logs show there was only one part-time employee at the tower that day, so he wasn't allowed to leave his post to help.

Even when lifeguards finally pulled Parambath onto the beach several minutes later, paramedics couldn't get to him. As lifeguards performed mouth-to-mouth, one of Ocean Rescue's aging four-wheelers got stuck in the sand. Bystanders had to help dig it out.

"I didn't expect it to take 20 or 25 minutes to get an ambulance," Swaraman says. "But there was no access point to the beach. The ambulance could not get to him."

Parambath Sainath was pronounced dead an hour later at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Dillon Charles and Parambath Sainath aren't the only people to have died there recently. Just a week before Charles' death, 51-year-old William McKernan drowned in the hotel's hulking shadow after having a heart attack. And five weeks before Sainath succumbed to the current, another Fontainebleau guest, 59-year-old James Gorsuch, also drowned. (Fontainebleau representatives didn't respond to a request for comment.)

But the problem goes beyond putting more eyes on the ocean. Lifeguards say that since Ocean Rescue was placed under the Fire Department in 2006, resources have dried up. "We don't even have the equipment we need to be first responders," says another lifeguard, who like his colleague asked to remain anonymous to protect his job. "We don't have tourniquets or quick-locks to stop bleeding. We don't even have latex-free gloves. We've got nothing except an oxygen bag and Band-Aids."

He says lifeguards have spent their own money on equipment, including paint and spare parts for ATVs. And he claims superiors have ignored his requests for equipment, expanded hours, and additional towers.

A few members of the public have also complained. Marcella Paz Cohen, a member of the city's Safety Committee, has asked for eight new towers, including one behind the Fontainebleau. She has also requested at least two lifeguards per tower. Currently, only nine of the 29 towers are double-staffed.

Other residents have asked for longer hours. Lifeguards currently work 9 to 5 from November to January and 9 to 7 the rest of the year. In Cuba, by contrast, lifeguards work 12 hours a day year-round. In Miami Beach, 75-year-old Sonia Navarro says she fears for her life when she swims every morning at 8 because there are no lifeguards on duty yet. Six months ago, she nearly drowned but was saved by another swimmer. "The lifeguards are only there from 9 to 5," she says. "Only tourists can go to the beach during that time.

"From the bottom of my heart, I feel that the Miami Beach administration really doesn't care about us residents," she says. "They only care about bringing more tourists. It's like they are working only for the businesspeople."

Reynolds vigorously denies that lifeguards lack equipment or that staffing issues affect public safety. He also says tower locations are up to city officials, not him. "There are going to be after-hours drownings, and there are going to be unguarded areas that people drown in. It's unfortunate, and I am really sad about that, but those are things that are pretty much beyond my control," he says. "We could always do better with more resources... but when it comes to utilizing what we have, I think we do an excellent job."

The simplest answer is more towers, more lifeguards, and longer hours. But all of that costs money.

In fact, despite record-high resort tax revenues and booming hotel construction, the city is considering cutting — not boosting — the number of lifeguards. Among the "potential service reduction alternatives" attached to the city's 2014 budget are two suggestions: making lifeguard hours 9 to 5 year-round and replacing 20 full-time lifeguards with part-timers.

Some lifeguards suspect their superiors have been encouraged by city officials to under­spend. This year, Ocean Rescue has a budget of around $10 million (compared to $62 million for the Fire Department). Any leftover money goes into the city's general fund. Reynolds denies he's under pressure to save and says it's a good thing his department comes in under budget. "The idea is not to waste the city's money."

The politics are of little importance to the public, whether locals who want to feel safe during their morning swim or tourists who just want to party. And although more towers and lifeguards in Miami Beach would likely save dozens of lives for years to come, they won't bring back the 15 people who have drowned in the past two years.

And they won't bring back Dillon Charles. He never woke up next to his friend after they were pulled from the water by cabana boys. She only found out he was dead later that night when she checked out of the hospital herself. She survived, but her nightmare has yet to end.

"I have really bad anxiety about all this," she says. "I am in therapy because of what happened." Some of her friend's family members blamed her for his death. Sometimes she does too. Other times, she blames the city for leaving half a mile of beach unguarded.

"There should have been signs that said 'No Swimming' or people whistling to come back toward shore," she says. "When you're at the beach, you need a lifeguard. Lifeguards save lives."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.