- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

VIRGINIA BEACH (AP) — City rescue officials are re-examining the way they guard swimmers because of four drownings since mid-July at the oceanfront, where more than one drowning a summer is considered rare.
Among other things, officials say they are looking at extending lifeguards' hours and at increasing efforts to warn people of unsafe conditions, such as posting signs at beach access points.
Such steps would be especially important if the habits of beachgoers are changing, with more people entering the surf in the early evening, said Ed Brazle, division chief for the city's Emergency Medical Services.
The current lifeguard schedule, from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., is based on the times of heaviest beach use in past years, Mr. Brazle said.
This summer's drownings, including two over the weekend, are the first since 1998 at the oceanfront.
"Nobody can remember when we've had four in a season like this," Mr. Brazle said.
All four drownings occurred in rough surf after 6 p.m., when lifeguards hired to watch the resort strip go off duty. Red flags warning of rough conditions also are taken down when lifeguards leave their stands.
The city's EMS dive team patrols the boardwalk from 6 p.m. until sunset, equipped with a Jet Ski and an all-terrain vehicle. But more extensive protection might be needed, Mr. Brazle said. Some resort cities have prohibited ocean swimming after lifeguards quit for the day, arresting people who violate the law, he said.
"We're looking at our whole operation — whether we need to guard later, how do we advise people," Mr. Brazle said. "There is no quick fix. And none of this comes cheap."
The summer's first drowning, on July 16, involved a 16-year-old Portsmouth girl who was swimming with a sister and two friends about 60 yards offshore about 8:30 p.m.
Witnesses reported that strong rip currents made it difficult for the four youths to swim back. A rip current occurs when ocean tides that run along the beach get funneled back to sea through or around sand bars, jetties and piers, causing a strong undertow.
On July 27, a 38-year-old Ohio man drowned after trying to rescue his 10-year-old daughter in heavy surf near the Rudee Inlet jetty at about 8 p.m. The girl had minor injuries.
That day, lifeguards had closed the oceanfront to swimming and had flown the red caution flags.
The latest drownings occurred Saturday. Rescue personnel received reports around 6:30 p.m. of two males struggling against the surf.
The body of Jesse Lynell James, 39, of Gibsonville, N.C., was recovered Sunday in the surf near Camp Pendleton and the body of Justin Cunningham, 13, of Milton, N.C., was recovered Monday in the surf just south of the 15th Street fishing pier.
The two had been visiting the beach with other members of a gospel singing group.


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