Visitors, colleagues pay respects to Newport Beach lifeguard who died

The waters were rough, but the day was warm and cloudless in Newport Beach, a summer Monday like so many others, taken in by countless beachgoers — only interrupted here and there by scattered reminders that a day earlier a man charged with protecting those visitors lost his life.

Some left flowers stuffed in swim fins, others scrawled condolences on paper.


"We love you, you will be missed," read the sign at Malarky's Irish Pub, a short walk from the water. "Closed today ... Ben Carlson, bro lifeguard drowned on a rescue," read another on the front window of the Beach Burger.

For 100 years, the lifeguards of Newport Beach have survived pounding surf, fierce rip currents and powerful undertow as they pulled struggling beach-goers from the sea. But some of that invincibility was swept away Sunday afternoon when 32-year-old Ben Carlson drowned while working to rescue a swimmer caught in the choppy surf.

"We never think we're going to go to work and die," said Jose De La Jara, a 24-year reserve lifeguard who was on duty Sunday.

Carlson, a 15-year veteran, jumped into the water from a rescue boat that had responded to save the swimmer who was struggling in 6- to 8-foot waves off the Balboa Peninsula near 16th Street, according to city officials. Bodyboarders were also trying to assist the victim, said Newport Beach Chief Lifeguard Rob Williams.

After Carlson reached the man, they were both pummeled by a large wave.

Seven boats from various agencies and at least 25 people, including some retired lifeguards, helped in the hours-long search for Carlson, Williams said.

Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff arrived at the Newport Pier about 45 minutes after the search began and watched as the team worked to find the missing man.

A line of lifeguards swam perpendicular to the shore, he said. About every 20 seconds, 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," Kiff said.

He followed along the beach, watching as the line of searchers moved north and west. At about sundown, Kiff said, Carlson's body was found near the pier. He was taken to nearby Hoag Hospital and pronounced dead at 8:15 p.m., according to the Orange County coroner's office.

Carlson was not married and had no children, Williams said. But he did have a big group of friends.

De La Jara described Carlson as a good athlete who "charged" waves everywhere from Mexico to Hawaii to the Wedge, the infamous break not far from where the lifeguard lived on the Balboa Peninsula.

"This guy was not your average guy," he said. "He was a water man."

The accident sent shock waves through the department, De La Jara said.


"We expect crowds. We expect people," he said. "But the ocean was just mean that day."

Carlson was born in Fort Worth, Texas and graduated from Etiwanda High School near Rancho Cucamonga in 2000. He earned a degree in psychology from UC Irvine in 2005, school officials said.

The lifeguard was also a longtime bartender and had worked as the bar and beverage director for Wahoo's Fish Taco since 2011.

Eric Palafox, the assistant manager at the chain's Newport Beach location, remembered Carlson as a great leader with a happy outlook on life.

"He was always so positive, trying to motivate our team and improve sales," Palafox said. "He always came up with great ideas to improve our bar."

From his office at the base of the pier where Carlson's body was found, Chief Lifeguard Williams remembered Carlson as instructions on the protocol for a funeral sat on his desk. He also spoke about the responsibilities his team faces everyday.

Each year, the department makes about 4,000 rescues and Carlson's death came during one of the busiest weekends of the year for Newport Beach lifeguards.

More than 200 rescues were made Sunday and 3,000 preventive measures were reported, Williams said.

On Monday, high temperatures and clear skies brought swimmers back to the beach. Many were unaware of the tragic event that transpired the day before.

Still, each of the lifeguards scheduled to work showed up, Williams said.

"They're here. They want to be here. They respect what Ben did," he said. "It's tragic, absolutely tragic, but there's other people out here to keep safe."

Twitter: @emfoxhall 

Twitter: @JillCowan 

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN 

Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.