Los Angeles Times

'We never think we're going to go to work and die'

Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson was manning a rescue boat Sunday evening when he got a call that a swimmer was struggling to get back to shore near 16th Street.

The 6- to 8-foot swell, slightly larger than waves traditionally seen in that area of the beach, had taken the swimmer, a man, by surprise.

The National Weather Service had warned of dangerous rip currents and high surf along the beach that day, stemming from a swell originating in the Southern Hemisphere. For the majority of the day, the coast was pummeled with swells that reached up to 12 feet.

Lifeguards had already made nearly 200 rescues by the time Carlson received what would be his last call as a member of the team.

The department makes about 4,000 rescues each year, said Newport Beach Chief Lifeguard Rob Williams.

Around 5 p.m. lifeguards hopped off their towers and braved the surf to help the fraught swimmer, but Carlson could get there faster.

Without hesitation, the 32-year-old dove off the boat and swam toward the man, successfully reaching him before any of the other lifeguards. Several bodyboarders also swam toward the man in an attempt to help.

Before they could begin to swim to safety, a large wave slammed the group underwater.

"As the bodyboarders came up, and the victim came up, he did not," Williams said.

Carlson disappeared in the surf as the group made their way back to the shore.

Seven boats, two helicopters and at least 30 people began searching for the lifeguard.

Dave Kiff, Newport Beach City Manager, arrived near the Newport pier about 45 minutes after the search began to offer support.

Kiff watched as lifeguards swam in a line perpendicular to the shore. 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," he said. "And it's just heartbreaking because by that point, you know the outcome is not good."

Lifeguards knew they were searching for a body — either of a friend or a man who shared their work.

Kiff, who said he followed along the beach, watched the line of searchers move north and west in the choppy surf, getting as far as the about 28th Street, when the sun started to set.

At sundown, three hours after the search began, Carlson's body was found near the Newport Pier.

Paramedics took Carlson to Hoag Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 8:15 p.m., according to the Orange County coroner's office.

Carlson's death marks the first time in the division's 100-year history that a lifeguard died in the line of duty.

The coroner will conduct an autopsy this week to determine the official cause of death.

During the search, Kiff said, the beach and pier were crowded with visitors enjoying the holiday weekend.

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

"They're used to seeing a certain pattern," he said, though, "I don't think [any of the residents] knew at the time that he was a lifeguard."

Carlson had spent the past 15 years as part of a crew of about 200, mostly seasonal, lifeguards in Newport Beach.

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

"We are going to miss a great friend and a co-worker," Wahoo's founder Wing Lam wrote on Facebook. "May he rest in peace."

Eric Palafox, the assistant manager at the chain's Fashion Island 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."

Carlson was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on July 2, 1982. He graduated from Etiwanda High School near Rancho Cucamonga in 2000. He earned a degree in psychology from UC Irvine in 2005, school officials said.

During his high school and college years, Carlson was an active member of the swim and water polo teams.

Carlson was a good athlete and avid surfer, who "charged" waves from Mexico to Hawaii to the Wedge, said Jose De La Jara, a reserve lifeguard.

The 32-year-old was also perhaps the epitome of a Newport Beach lifeguard, De La Jara said. He previously worked at Malarky's Irish Pub, a popular locals bar in Newport co-owned by a former lifeguard, and lived on the Balboa Peninsula with other lifeguards.

"This guy was not your average guy," De La Jara said. "He was a waterman."

While Carlson didn't have children, he had a large group of friends.

De La Jara, who has been a reserve lifeguard for about 24 years, was in the surf helping with rescues Sunday near the Balboa Pier. He recalls thinking just how treacherous the waters were that day, hours before he learned of his friend's death.

"We expect crowds. We expect people. But the ocean was just mean that day," De La Jara said. "We never think we're going to go to work and die."

Carlson's death has sent shock waves through the division, De La Jara said, as Carlson was just doing what the job required of him.

"He wasn't doing something stupid," he said. "he was just doing something that we do every day."

Less than 24 hours after Carlson's death, all the lifeguards scheduled for duty Monday morning showed up for work, Williams said.

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

The department's saying "lifeguards for life" is one that unites them, even in times of tragedy, Williams said.

Once someone is trained as a lifeguard, they begin to see situations differently when they're at the beach, he explained.

"Hopefully through this Ben can provide a little insight to what the dangers can be in this environment," he said.

A paddle out for Carlson will be held at at 7:45 a.m. Wednesday at Tower 22.

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