Drowning death of lifeguard shakes Newport Beach

The flag at the Newport Pier flew at half staff, flowers stuffed in swim fins were lined up outside the lifeguard headquarters and a note pasted to the entrance of a beach-area restaurant read "Closed today – Ben Carlson, bro lifeguard drowned on a rescue."

The summertime mood in the heart of Newport Beach turned somber Monday the day after Carlson drowned while trying to rescue a swimmer caught up in 10-foot surf. He was the first lifeguard to have drowned on duty in the beach city in 100 years.


Like others in the tightknit beachfront community around the bustling pier, Rick and Patty Galippo visited lifeguard headquarters. They left a bouquet of yellow flowers. They didn't know Carlson but said they'd watched the attempt to rescue him the day before.

"We just felt the somber mood," Patty Galippo said.

Newport Beach resident Carly Christian, 18, brought a framed photo of herself posing with Carlson after she won the Monster Mile junior lifeguard competition in 2010. She said Carlson had once been her instructor, as well as her water polo coach at Newport Harbor High School.

"Ben was just the type of guy that would push you to your limits because he knew you could succeed. He'd never let you give up at all."

Dave Kiff, the city manager of Newport Beach, said he arrived on the shoreline Sunday about 45 minutes after the search was launched. Carlson had disappeared under the choppy waves while trying to rescue a swimmer at about 5 p.m.

Kiff said the search, though "heartbreaking," was a "really remarkable thing to watch."

A line of lifeguards swam in a line perpendicular to the shore. About every 20 seconds, Kiff said, they'd "pop their heads up" and their leader would shout "Dive!"

"All you'd see were fins — their fins would pop up and down they'd go," he said. "And it's just heartbreaking because by that point, you know the outcome is not good."

Kiff estimated that more than 30 lifeguards aided in the search as a pair of helicopters hovered above the water, one on loan from neighboring Huntington Beach.

At about sundown, Kiff said, Carlson's body was found near the pier.

During the search, Kiff said, the beach and pier were crowded, many visitors continuing to enjoy the weather and beach scene as the search unfolded.

But Newport residents who often walk their dogs or stroll the beach sensed something was wrong, he said.

He said the outpouring of support from the community has been heartening. Early Monday, he said, city employees discovered that someone had left flowers on all of city's lifeguard vehicles.