The accidental loss of teenagers in the robust health of early adulthood is a sharp reversal that’s deeply felt. When their deaths come during their service to the public, literally protecting and saving the lives of others, tragedy is taken to the limit.
Then, as the Jersey Shore was climbing from the depths of sorrow over the death of a 16-year-old Cape May lifeguard, a lightning bolt took a 19-year-old lifeguard in the White Sands Beach section of Berkeley Township, just outside Island Beach State Park.
The recurrence of this terrible loss in such close and bewildering proximity of time and place made it feel like a biblical calamity.
As with those, people struggle to understand the ways of nature or God in these sad twin events.
“This just doesn’t happen,” said Tom Gill, spokesman for the U.S. Lifesaving Association. “For two fatalities in such a short time frame in the same general area, this is a tragedy beyond measure.”
We can’t fault an Associated Press account for trying to frame it in a traditional journalistic perspective, calling it “a stark reminder of just how dangerous the job can be.” This job is actually remarkably safe.
Gill said he could recall only one other on-duty death of a New Jersey lifeguard in the past 30 to 40 years. When a California lifeguard drowned in 2014, while saving a swimmer, he was the first to die in the line of duty in nearly 100 years of Newport Beach’s lifeguard service.
Lifeguard deaths are so rare that there appear to be no statistics kept on them. This record is a great credit to the physically fit, healthy, well-trained and often young guards. It also makes the South Jersey fatalities more confounding.
Norman Inferrera III was killed when a wave caught his surf boat and overturned it, slamming it into his head and knocking him out or perhaps even causing fatal brain damage. The ocean may have sent one unusually strong wave at the exact moment when he was most vulnerable. Fellow guards went to his aid immediately, but it only takes one minute to drown if unconscious.
Keith Pinto was at his guard stand when a bolt of lightning killed him instantly and injured seven others nearby.
Given the extreme rarity of lifeguard deaths and the apparent great success of the service’s training and operation nationwide, these are most unusual accidents. We’d be wary of seeking changes in the service’s practices that might unwittingly yield a worse outcome for guards or swimmers.
Lightning deaths are themselves very rare, about 40 annually in the U.S. The White Sands Beach tragedy is a reminder that some dangerous bolts reach out away from storms, where people perceive the lightning threat to be low or nonexistent. The National Weather Service says a significant lightning threat extends outward from the base of a thunderstorm cloud about 6 to 10 miles, and people who hear thunder are within its reach.
We couldn’t help notice in the photos afterward of Pinto’s lifeguard stand that it apparently is made of aluminum. The metal is an efficient conductor of electricity, and the stand therefore would elevate the grounding that the lightning is seeking, making it a target especially on a flat beach.
If this workplace fatality weren’t such an extremely rare occurrence, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration might look into it and wind up recommending against aluminum stands. Fiberglass ladders already are preferred over aluminum ones for their reduced risk when accidentally contacting power lines. When it’s time to replace lifeguard stands, this factor should be considered.
Overall, the urge to do something provoked by such grievous loss might be better directed toward appreciating these two young men, examples of what is best and most hopeful about people. They affirm life fully, at exactly when it most challenges human comprehension.