Unlikely rescuers pull two swimmers to safety

Girls are among 15 saved in weekend’s rough surf


Long Beach residents Erik Walter and Gregory Dressel were sitting on the crowded beach at Edwards Boulevard at around 3:30 last Saturday, enjoying the uncharacteristically warm weather, when they heard a woman on the shore shouting for help.

Walter, the principal at Rhame Avenue Elementary School in East Rockaway, and Dressel, a television production assistant in New York City, ran to the jetty and saw two young girls struggling to stay afloat.

The girls were caught in a rip current, Walter said. There have been frequent rip currents in recent weeks, attributable to the hurricanes raging through the Atlantic Ocean.

“They probably fell off the jetty into the water,” Walter added.

The pair called 911, but Walter said he couldn’t just stand there and wait for emergency personnel to arrive. “When we looked up and we heard these two girls screaming for help and begging for somebody to save their lives, we just jumped into the water,” he said, adding that he and Dressel have no ocean rescue training.

Another bystander, Will Jelbert, an author in New York City, had also heard screams for help and ran into the water to swim out to the girls. Once in the water, the rescuers grabbed the girls and then tried — and failed — to fight their way through the strong, fast-moving current back to shore. Instead they were pulled toward the jetty, where they frantically pushed the girls to the rocks. The girls appeared to be only half conscious, and were vomiting water, Walter said.

“If we didn’t swim out there,” Walter said, “I honestly don’t think those girls would’ve made it.”

After the rescuers helped the girls, they were faced with a new problem.

“We were caught in their situation,” Walter continued. “We couldn’t swim to shore because of the current, so we were smashed into the rocks, and found ourselves trapped in between the jagged jetty rocks.” He and Dressel pulled themselves up onto the jetty, scraping their legs and feet. Jelbert also sustained scrapes to his legs. The girls were pulled to safety by firefighters and treated by emergency personnel, according to those with knowledge of the incident.

“They swallowed too much water and had difficulty breathing,” Fire Chief Joe Miller said of the girls, who were not identified. They also suffered minor injuries, he added, and were transported to South Nassau Communities Hospital for further evaluation. Walter and Dressel were taken to an urgent care center, where they were given tetanus shots and antibiotics to ward off potential infections.

“I don’t know their names or who they are, and I hope they’re OK,” Walter said, “But we saved those two girls’ lives.”

The incident was one of many water rescues involving emergency crews and bystanders that occurred over the weekend, when the beach was crowded because of the sweltering heat. Lifeguards went off duty after Labor Day, and beachgoers are prohibited from entering the water when they are not present.

On Sunday, firefighters, emergency crews and off-duty guards rushed to the beaches at National, Edwards and Riverside boulevards, where swimmers entered the 66-degree water despite the dangerously rough surf.

“We pulled out around 15 people,” Miller said. “Our water rescue team and mutual aid ambulances assisted,” he added, noting that a team of lifeguards, who were taking care of postseason duties, ran into the water to save the swimmers, a few of whom also had minor injuries and ended up at South Nassau.

On Monday, the Fire Department responded to reports of two male swimmers who were in distress at Lindell Boulevard beach at about 2 p.m. They made their way to shore before firefighters could help them.

“They were exhausted, but we gave them oxygen and they looked fine,” Miller said, adding that they refused further medical attention.