Longform

Drownings Rise in Miami Beach as Lifeguards Demand More Help

Page 2 of 3

"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."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.