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Remembering a Life Devoted to Saving Lives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 6 feet, 5 inches and 240 pounds, lifeguard Adam “AJ” Summers loomed large. So did his deeds.

And that’s the way he’ll probably be remembered Monday when lifeguards from up and down the state attend a memorial to pay their last respects to Summers, who in his 11 years as a lifeguard won three commendations for heroic rescues.

Summers died on the Fourth of July, the victim of a motorcycle accident in Huntington Beach. The 32-year-old lifeguard lieutenant was rear-ended by a taxi while stopped at a signal light about 4 a.m. The driver, Michelle Marchman, 37, of Huntington Beach, was not held, but an investigation is continuing, police said.

In 1994, Summers’ quick thinking helped more than 120 people stay calm while a fire blocked their escape on the Seal Beach Pier. A year later, after a 14-hour workday during a 1995 storm, Summers rushed to Leisure World, where flood waters reached car hoods and stranded elderly residents. That night, Summers joined firefighters and either carried or escorted 54 residents to safety.

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“All the victims left their homes and were temporarily relocated at Leisure World’s clubhouses,” said Dave Saunders, publications manager for Leisure World. “AJ Summers was mentioned as one of the rescuers. In fact, the water was so high it stalled a firetruck.”

If those two rescues set Summers apart from other lifeguards, his effort on Veterans Day in 1989 set him and fellow rescuer Jeff Aldinger heads above the rest, said Tim Dorsey, a retired Seal Beach lifeguard chief.

On that day, Summers and Aldinger saw a sudden low tide at the mouth of the San Gabriel River that dropped the water level 9 feet. What took place next, Dorsey said, was the “most spectacular rescue” he had ever seen in his 32-year career.

At first, only three surfers were struggling against a rare low-tide current that went from 3 mph to 5 mph to 10 mph in minutes.

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“The current took out 50 people. I mean, these people didn’t know what happened, but they were headed out to sea,” Dorsey said. “Aldinger and AJ put on three buoy cans apiece, because they knew they were in serious trouble.”

During the next 50 minutes, the two lifeguards swam and walked 28 swimmers and surfers to shore. A boat took aboard 15 more people.

“I wouldn’t say we were heroes,” Summers was quoted as saying. “I’m out here to do that, and I enjoy it.”

Summers’ father, Richard Summers, 72, of Seal Beach, a retired engineer, said his son always loved the ocean and learned to swim along with an older brother, “practically before they could walk.”

At Los Alamitos High School, Summers swam the backstroke and was on a relay team that set a school record, his father said.

“He loved water polo too, anything to do with the water,” Richard Summers said, adding that his son’s personalized license plate summed it up: OCNRESQ.

Adam Summers’ actions garnered a leadership role when lifeguards from other agencies elected him to the executive board of the 1,500-member California Surf Lifesaving Assn.

At the statewide association, Summers found himself one of the youngest lifeguards among old-guard leadership of the organization that updates lifeguard training standards and helps maintain a level of professionalism among lifeguards statewide.

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“Every time we had a project going or when AJ had responsibility to get something done, he got it done. He was our go-to guy,” said Bill Richardson, the retired chief of Huntington Beach lifeguards who serves as the group’s president.

Summers created the group’s first Web site and helped lifeguards learn how to e-mail so they were linked not only to the state group but also to a national lifesaving organization.

“He was very much involved in making sure that standards of lifeguard professionalism were maintained at different agencies, from the largest, such as Los Angeles County, to some of the smallest, like us here in Seal Beach,” said Seal Beach Capt. Steve Cushman, who considered Summers “my right hand, my hip.”

Don Rohrer, retired chief lifeguard for Los Angeles County, said Summers had carved a niche doing volunteer work on the state lifeguard association and described him as a “class guy, a real up-and-comer.”

“AJ will be missed by more than just his family,” Rohrer said.

Seal Beach lifeguard Paul Carter said Summers was always trying to improve the marine safety department. Through the state organization, Summers learned how larger lifeguard agencies ran their junior lifeguard programs and applied it at Seal Beach.

“He even had our lifeguard headquarters address changed to 906. That’s the code for a lifeguard rescue,’ Carter said. “AJ called the post office, found out that 906 was not used, and had our old address changed. That was AJ.”

Memorial services will be Monday at 10:30 a.m. at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 4471 Lincoln Ave., Cypress. After the services, a unique ceremony will take place, with rescue boats and lifeguards on paddleboards forming a circle beyond the breakers in memory of Summers.

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