Most of the youngsters don’t go on to become lifeguards. Many of them sign up and, to their surprise, spend sometimes challenging half-days of instruction on the sand and in the sea. They sometimes go home both happy and somewhat worn out.
But above all else, the Junior Lifeguards program in Huntington Beach -- like in other beach towns up and down the coast -- is supposed to be fun. What the city never expected, and what had never happened until Tuesday, is that one of the thousands of participants over the 45-year history of the program would die from a training exercise.
An investigation is underway into the death of Allyssa Squirrell, 11, who died in surgery after apparently being hit by the propeller of a boat used to drop off and then retrieve participants. An autopsy Wednesday concluded that she died of deep cuts to her back and her left leg, Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Jim Amormino said.
Huntington Beach officials said the girl was one of two who jumped off the rear of the boat during an exercise about 3 p.m. Tuesday. When the boat’s driver -- a 20-year veteran of the program -- circled back to pick up the pair, the propeller apparently struck Allyssa. City spokeswoman Laurie Payne said the waters just beyond the surf line were choppy and that the boat’s pilot didn’t see the girl.
Despite its name, the program isn’t primarily for lifeguard-wannabes. Rather, it teaches a wide array of ocean-related skills and safety.
If not said in so many words, the students who sign up for the two-month sessions are reminded that although the ocean is the plaything in beach cities, it is potentially lethal.
The communal nature of beach activities in Southern California -- and the commonality of Junior Lifeguards programs -- probably means Allyssa’s death will reverberate beyond Huntington Beach.
“There is a camaraderie among the kids in the program,” said Newport Beach Fire Chief Steve Lewis, who oversees the one in his city. “The fact that they meet minimum standards to get in, the fact that they’re even there actually does set them apart from other kids.”
Orange County’s miles of beachfront make ocean safety paramount. “One thing we try to do with the kids is make them water-safe,” Lewis said. “It’s not a lake; it’s not a pool. It’s the ocean, and it’s a very, very treacherous place.”
For that reason, he said, many youngsters aren’t allowed into the program because they aren’t good enough swimmers.
The “speed drop” in which Allyssa took part is a familiar training exercise in Junior Lifeguards, said Lewis and Joe Milligan, a former lifeguard and now the superintendent of Huntington and Bolsa Chica state beaches.
Like Lewis, Milligan doesn’t know the details of the accident, but he said the programs breed a respect for the ocean and for each other.
“For a lot of kids, there’s a pride in completing the program,” Milligan said. “There’s a confidence factor as well. When you complete a swim around the buoy or the pier that looked quite ominous at first, but then you go as a group and you hung together and completed it safely, there’s a feeling of accomplishment.”
Near lifeguard headquarters on Wednesday, distraught adults and youthful friends of Allyssa created a memorial. Mourners left flowers, a candle, a pot filled with sand and shells, a dolphin-shaped balloon and a message reading, “God Bless you sweet child.”
Huntington Beach closed the program Wednesday but will resume classes today. The boat pilot, identified as Greg Crow, 53, was “devastated” by the incident and is on leave, city spokeswoman Payne said.