Three Newport Beach lifeguard rescue boats line up off the beach durng a ceremony at 16th Street to mark the three-year anniversary of the death of Ben Carlson on Thursday, July 6.(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot )
Newport lifeguards participate in a moment of silence during a ceremony at the 16th Street beach to mark three years since the death of Ben Carlson on Thursday, July 6.(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot )
Newport lifeguard Bret Winners wears a hat in remembrance of lifeguard Ben Carlson during a ceremony marking three years since Carlson died on duty.(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot )
Newport Beach firefighters particiapte in a moment of silence during a ceremony at the 16th Street beach to mark three years since the death of Ben Carlson on Thursday, July 6.(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot )
The sea was calm at 5:18 p.m. Thursday as three yellow rescue boats pulled away from the shore, between Newport Beach lifeguard stands 15 and 17, and into the horizon.
This was the time and place where, three years ago, Ben Carlson leapt into the ocean to make his final rescue.
On the anniversary of Carlson’s line-of-duty death, the first for Newport lifeguards in the division’s nearly 100-year history, dozens of friends and colleagues gathered at the beach to salute his sacrifice.
The boat ceremony has recognized Carlson every year since his death, but this was the first time his father, Chris Carlson, had seen it.
“It’s just neat to see this community remember Ben the way that they do,” he said.
From permanent memorials like the larger-than-life statue of Carlson’s likeness at McFadden Square, at the end of Newport Pier and yards from the city lifeguard headquarters that now bears Carlson’s name, to small gestures, like the maxim “Ben Did Go” on the marquee of Malarky’s Irish Pub, where he had tended bar, the city reveres Carlson for his actions on July 6, 2014.
The swells were larger than usual that day. Carlson, 32, a seasonal lifeguard with 15 years of experience, was manning a rescue boat when he dove into the heavy surf to assist a struggling swimmer.
A crashing wave knocked the men underwater. The swimmer, clutching the buoy Carlson gave him, surfaced, unhurt. Backup quickly arrived, and everybody made it back to shore safely except Carlson. Searchers recovered his body three hours later near Newport Pier.
The ceremony Thursday was brief, but “for us, it means a lot,” said Rob Williams, Newport Beach chief lifeguard.
Last week, the Ben Carlson Memorial & Scholarship Foundation put a new plaque at the base of the McFadden Square statue. On the anniversary of Carlson’s death, the statue wore fresh leis.
The plaque tells Carlson’s story. The statue, facing the water with one hand shading its eyes as it perpetually scans the waves, shows it.