A Newport Beach lifeguard who drowned during a weekend rescue is the first on-duty death in the division’s 100-year history, officials said.
Ben Carlson, a 15-year veteran lifeguard, swam out to save a distressed swimmer struggling in 6- to 8-foot waves near 16th Street about 5 p.m. Sunday, city officials said in a statement.
“After he successfully contacted the man, both of them were hit by a large wave,” Newport Beach Fire Department Chief Scott Poster said at a news conference. “The other lifeguard personnel at the scene attempted to rescue and assist Ben, but were unable to find him because of the turbulent water.”
Poster said 30 people scanned the water from shore and 25 others were in the water looking for Carlson after he disappeared. His body was found about 8 p.m., Poster said. The swimmer Carlson swam out to save made it back to shore.
“This is the first time the city of Newport Beach has ever lost a lifeguard in the line of duty, in over 100 years,” he said.
The Orange County coroner will conduct an autopsy this week to determine the official cause of death.
After Carlson’s body was recovered, authorities notified his co-workers, who had spent hours searching for him. Poster said such incidents draw them closer together.
“It’s the beginning of healing after losing one of their own, one of their team members, a person they worked with for many years,” the chief said.
Poster described Carlson as a dedicated lifeguard who would “give the shirt off his back at any time. He was there to help at every single moment.
“It’s an utter tragedy to lose a man of that caliber,” he added.
The death came during one of the busiest weekends of the year for Newport Beach lifeguards. There was a near-drowning earlier Sunday when a swimmer was pulled away by strong rip currents, police said.
During the same weekend last year, Newport Beach lifeguards made 142 rescues, according to the Daily Pilot.
The loss shocked the close-knit public safety department in Newport Beach.
"It's been a very difficult time," said police Sgt. Penny Freeman.