Home featured How One Shoreline Took the Lives of 7 Young People

How One Shoreline Took the Lives of 7 Young People

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They went into the water in the early afternoon. Three teenage boys from Queens whose school was closed for a holiday.

They had taken a bus to Rockaway Beach that Tuesday in October with two other friends and intended only to lounge on the sand and listen to music.

But the waves beckoned in the sun.

In the three went. The water was frothy and playful, bumping against their legs.

They were knee-deep. Then waist-deep.

And then they were gone.

The current had yanked the trio out to a frigid place where the ocean floor fell away, where the water churned with a wild energy that could not be fathomed until one was suffocating beneath it.

By chance, nearby surfers spotted one of the boys and paddled over, offering their surfboards.

“Do you see my buddies?” the boy gasped. “Do you see my friends?”

ImageIn Gabe Rice's room, photographs and his middle school graduation cap and gown still hang. He was 16 when he drowned last year at Rockaway Beach.

Another surfer arrived. She ordered the boy to take her board and strap it to his ankle. “I’m going to push you into the waves,” she said. “Try to ride into shore.”

The boy somersaulted through the breakers, then eventually found the ground beneath him. He dragged himself forward, collapsing to his knees. The friends who had stayed on land ran up to him, as did the authorities who had been called.

He held up two fingers: the number of his missing friends. One was Adedayo Adewale, an outgoing 15-year-old who had immigrated from Nigeria and spoke of becoming a doctor.

The other was Gabriel Rice, 16, a bright student who had helped tutor classmates for their state exams. Known as Gabe, he was the only child of a single mother.

Both were good-natured basketball stars at their Ozone Park high school, popular for their light hearts and broad smiles.

Neither would surface that night.

Credit…Anna Eshelman for The New York Times

An 11-mile stretch that opens up to the Atlantic Ocean, the Rockaways calls to those weary of New York’s rough edges. Less raucous than Coney Island, it is an easy getaway for those on a budget, the kind of open playscape where a city kid can feel free.

It will be even more alluring this summer with public pools closed and the usual activities canceled. After months of quarantine, millions will be anxious for a place to escape the heat with enough room for social distancing. The city announced just this week that its public beaches would finally open for swimming on July 1.

Like many coastal areas, the Rockaways, on the southern edge of Queens, often attracts those with little to no swimming skills who plan merely to wade or relax by the waves.

But there is peril in such beauty, a danger misunderstood.

In May, three young men were rescued from the water at Rockaway Beach. One did not survive.

Last year, at least seven others were stolen by its sea. All were young, all were people of color.

June 15: Perla Jimenez, 25.

July 9: Umarie Chamble, 25.

July 9: Keylon Ramsay, 28.

July 30: John Munoz, 18.

Aug. 4: Maintain Odozi, 15.

Oct. 1: Adedayo Adewale, 15.

Oct. 1: Gabe Rice, 16.

Their deaths marked the highest rash of drownings that the area had seen in a decade. Still, each one came with a sense of déjà vu. Drownings have been reluctantly folded into the region’s fabric, where locals know the meaning of helicopters whirring over the ocean.

“The water’s gorgeous; it looks like a lake, but it’s a bad drop-off,” said Ann Kirby-Payne, 50, a textbook editor who has lived all her life in Far Rockaway.

“So, one minute they’re standing there, then they take a few steps and they’re in over their head. If I could get one message to people: Standing up to your knees is swimming in the ocean.”

Efforts to raise awareness about the strong currents can be seen along the Rockaways, some of which is operated by the National Park Service. There are signs about water safety and red flags to mark unauthorized areas.

This can be lost on the D.F.D.s — the local term for those “down for the day” who lack proper beach etiquette and do not show a healthy fear of the ocean.

Some believe the signage should be more extensive and that the lifeguard hours are insufficient.

Lifeguards are on duty at Rockaway Beach and Jacob Riis Park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, but only from Memorial Day weekend through early September. The coronavirus has postponed their usual start date.

If there is no lifeguard present in an area, swimming is prohibited.

It’s a rule that can be hard to enforce.

Umarie Chamble, a 25-year-old home health aide, was reportedly trying to teach her boyfriend, Keylon Ramsay, 28, how to swim while at a friend’s birthday gathering last July. The Long Island couple disappeared just after 10 p.m.

Later that month, John Munoz, an 18-year-old from Brooklyn, went into the water with a friend after 8 p.m. His body was found the next morning.

Four days later, Maintain Odozi, 15, of Far Rockaway went for a dip with friends in an area reserved for kayaks and canoes and couldn’t stay afloat.

Drowning is among the top causes of unintentional death for those under 30, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young people, newly independent, often put themselves at great risk.

“You kind of want to scare them, because a lot of these kids, they want to go out there when the lifeguards are gone,” said Lou Harris, who has lived in the Rockaways for 14 years.

Mr. Harris, 48, runs the East Coast chapter of the Black Surfing Association, a nonprofit based in the Rockaways that teaches children how to surf. The first thing his students learn is how to spot a rip current. They’ll sit on the shoreline to feel the strong tug that comes with the ebb.

Mr. Harris also warns young visitors he encounters at the convenience store. “They’ll be in there buying 40s of beer, and I’ll say, ‘Hey guys, alcohol doesn’t mix on the beach.’ And they’re like, ‘OK, whatever.’ They have no idea.”

Each year, there are more than 500 rescues and thousands of preventive acts at Rockaway Beach, said Janet Fash, one of the area’s chief lifeguards.

Ms. Fash has been on the job for four decades. The drowning process, she said, can start within 15 seconds.

It often begins with what beachgoers think is calm water. But there is a lateral current. It can push you into a rip current, which will pull you out to the sea.

To survive, you must remain calm. If you are in shallow water, step out of the current. Otherwise, relax and let it carry you. When it stops, tread water or try to float until you are rescued or swim diagonal to shore.

Those who panic and flail begin to drown. After that, Ms. Fash said, there is a two-minute window of opportunity for a life to be saved. Within that time, some are so exhausted they give up. Of course, it is different for those who do not know how to swim. Their chance of survival diminishes the instant the current steals them away.

Perla Jimenez was the first victim at the Rockaways last year. A 25-year-old tattoo artist studying to become a schoolteacher, she was found lying unconscious on the sand of Jacob Riis Park less than an hour after lifeguards had retired for the day.

She had taken just a handful of swimming lessons after immigrating from the Dominican Republic as a child.

“We had to send her to private school, because the school in that area wasn’t good so we were kind of tight with the money,” said her father, Pablo Jimenez, 51, who works for an auto parts company. “Perla also wasn’t interested in swimming.”

Ms. Jimenez had recently reconnected with her parents and two younger sisters in South Ozone Park and was eager to cook them dinner and plan their birthday parties.

“It’s like everything turned upside down,” her father said. “A part of me is gone.”

Swimming ability is the first line of defense for beachgoers, but access to lessons can be limited by cost, time and availability. The issue is also generational. If parents can’t swim, it is more likely that their children won’t either.

The legacy of segregated swimming pools still plays out today. About 65 percent of black children have little to no swimming abilities, according to the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation. Their fatal drowning rate is also considerably higher than that of white children.

New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation offers free swimming lessons to all, but there is often a wait list. The agency also runs Swim For Life, a free course for second-grade classes. Only a small percentage of public schools participate.

Drowning protection must come in layers, said Shawn Slevin, the founder of Swim Strong Foundation, a nonprofit that started in the Rockaways and offers lessons at low to no cost. She believes ocean safety should be taught in schools until it is innate, like putting on a seatbelt in the car.

Less than two months after Ms. Jimenez died, Maintain Odozi drowned.

Maintain had been part of the New York Police Department’s Explorer program and was on the brink of his sophomore year in high school. Interested in becoming a video game engineer, he was a funny, generous friend with little patience for bullies.

His absence has left his mother, Tashima Wright, to re-examine her own life. She once harbored an assortment of phobias, including one of the water. But after your son dies, what else is there to fear?

Ms. Wright, 41, began going to her local YMCA every week. She wanted to learn to swim.

On a Sunday in October, Gabe Rice’s body was discovered near a Brooklyn bay known for the glass bottles that wash up on its shore. He had traveled at least 12 miles around the western end of the peninsula over five days.

His final moments were dim. His life of 16 years was not.

At 6-foot-4, he towered above classmates, but was relatable and silly. Always on the honor roll, he developed an interest in the stock market from an uncle, and a love for baking from his grandmother. He had perfected layer cakes and liked to host cookouts, grilling ribs and chicken.

“There’s 18 of us grandchildren. All of us agree: He was the most perfect one,” said his cousin Ty Thompson, 29. “He never got into trouble, never even got into a fight. Parents loved him.”

The day Gabe left for the Rockaways, he told his grandmother he would not go into the water. The words still weigh heavy.

After his death, his mother, Clarica Thompson, took a leave of absence from her job as a social worker. She gave her son’s PlayStation and sneakers to his friends, who promised to treasure them. She kept Gabe’s favorite blue suit, the one he wore for a sweet 16 party, and the Nikes he had planned to lace up for varsity basketball.

Ms. Thompson, 51, sees a therapist and keeps in touch with a group of parents who have lost their children.

But there are moments when the madness creeps in. When her mind wanders back to those days her boy was missing, when the world had no answers, when she learned that hope could buoy you but also drag your mind into darkness.

“I couldn’t sleep; I was up every night,” she recalled.

“All I kept thinking about was the water. He’s in the water. Where is he? Where, where, where?”

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