Westerly lifeguards, firefighters pull five to safety from 200 yards out in riptide

Westerly lifeguards, firefighters pull five to safety from 200 yards out in riptide


WESTERLY — When Mark Fidrych heard an emergency call come across the scanner for swimmers in distress along a private Atlantic Avenue beach on Wednesday evening, he and his team of lifeguards sprang into action.

Fidrych, a lifeguard captain at Westerly Town Beach who was helping set up for Tunes on the Dunes, grabbed a pair of binoculars and saw three distressed swimmers about half a mile east, struggling to swim with strong riptides that were pulling them farther from shore.

Without hesitation, he signaled to lifeguards Gabriella Celico, Erika Rohdin, Lea Kopperman and Jack Benavides, and the group grabbed a torpedo buoy and reel — a flotation device attached to a long line — before sprinting the half mile to provide assistance.

The team members ran into position and set up the equipment as members of the Misquamicut Fire Department used a Jet Ski to help two of those in distress. Benavides swam to the third victim with the buoy and line to allow Fidrych and Kopperman to pull the victim — and two good Samaritans who had tried to help — back to safety. The pair of would-be rescuers were not in distress but were helped toward the shore to prevent another rescue.

Rohdin served as a secondary lifeguard during the response and, alongside other town beach staff, helped coordinate and direct emergency responders.

“We were just happy to be able to help out,” Fidrych said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s something we have done before, going beyond our coverage zone, and we are trained to watch a wide area. If there is a need for assistance and we can help, we will.”

The Wednesday rescue began around 5 p.m. when dispatchers received a telephone call reporting three swimmers in distress in the area of 467 Atlantic Ave., according to Misquamicut Fire Chief Todd Findeisen. Misquamicut firefighters, Westerly police and personnel with the Westerly Ambulance Corps responded, with firefighters also dispatching the department’s Jet Ski and emergency boat.

The swimmers, a man and two women in their 50s who were not identified, had used an entrance at the drop-off point to enter the beach and planned to take a quick dip in the water, Findeisen said. The three went into the water and were quickly caught in a rip current, which swept them about 200 yards from shore.

Findeisen said the department was able to assist both women with the Jet Ski by attaching a rescue sled to the back. The women were pulled to safety. The lifeguards then rescued the man, as well as the two swimmers who had gone to their aid. The victims were treated for minor exhaustion, Findeisen said, but no serious injuries were reported.

Lifeguards and emergency personnel had previously limited swimming on public beaches through much of the day because of the strong tides caused by Hurricane Gert out in the Atlantic. But Findeisen said the three swimmers were not present when the warnings were issued and were not aware of the danger. Misquamicut State Beach limited swimming by preventing people from going above their knees and issued a “no swim” message on Facebook for 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

“That’s one of the dangers of using a drop-off zone as beach access,” Findeisen said. “The zones encourage use of beaches where there is no lifeguard on duty, and on a day like yesterday where conditions offshore create strong currents, it’s very dangerous.”

Findeisen said it is fairly common for his department to receive calls for assistance, especially on days when there is a strong tide. Town lifeguards and Misquamicut firefighters train regularly for such responses, practicing a wide variety of maneuvers to make sure responders are not only prepared in an emergency, but are able to respond as if it is second nature.

Jeff Lenihan, Westerly’s lifeguard supervisor, also indicated that responses are common for his staff in such conditions, though he noted that the town staff had worked closely with beach patrons Wednesday in an effort to prevent any problems. During the hours before the rescue, lifeguards gathered patrons together to explain how the currents work, as a proactive approach to avoid an emergency.

“With everything they did yesterday, these kids just knocked it out of the park,” Lenihan said. “I couldn’t be more proud of how they handled themselves and the way they stepped up, provided excellent response and helped make sure a dangerous situation did not turn tragic. I can’t praise them enough.”


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