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Spencer Wolff Headshot

The Drowned and the Saved

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Last Friday evening, not long before sunset, I was heading west on the Christopher Street pier on the Hudson River when I heard a loud commotion. A large crowd was pressed against the railings that line the pier. People were shouting and gesticulating wildly. "He fell in! He fell in!"

I looked down. Two of the man's friends were already in the water, but they were floundering. It was clear they could barely swim. The victim was nowhere to be seen. I had worked as an ocean lifeguard for five summers and had made dozens of saves. So, I took off my shirt and shoes and jumped in.

The water of the Hudson River is dark. So dark that when you dive more than a few feet below the surface it turns pitch black. My eyes were open but I couldn't even see my hands. All around the water pressed in, surprisingly dense and warm. I groped blindly and came back up.

The scene was chaotic. People were shouting and pointing in every direction. "He's there!" "No, he's over there." A girl shouted at me from the pier, "I can see him!" "Where?" She pointed straight down. I dove. Nothing. I came back up. Dove. Nothing. Hyperventilated as long as I could. Dove again.

About four minutes had passed when two police boats, lights flashing, came careening up the river. The three of us scrambled out of the water. Salvation had arrived.

Or not. After the two boats docked on the pier, we watched a surreal scene. One of the officers carefully pulled a bulbous yellow diving suit over his clothes. With the clock ticking, he stretched a gray swim cap over his head. The seconds turned into a minute. More. The crowd was yelling itself hoarse. "He's down there!" "He's down there!" Then the officer put on a snorkeling mask.

On the second police boat, no one did anything.

About five or six minutes later the Fire Department arrived. They lowered a ladder into the water, while one of them struggled into scuba gear. The diver descended the ladder and quickly located the victim.

He was 25 years old. He had been underwater for nearly 12 minutes.

At the various beaches where I worked as a lifeguard, we had all the gear we needed. We had torpedoes (those red flotation devices that you see on Baywatch). We had buckets full of rope. We had paddleboards for people caught far out to sea. Defibrillators. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation devices. A year after two of us had to sprint more than a mile down the beach, carrying a heavy bucket full of rope, and then swim out and rescue a victim in sizeable waves, the town purchased jet skis.

Equipment is expensive. I recognize that every police boat on the river cannot be outfitted with Scuba gear. But what about something as simple as a long pole to sweep the water? With a blunt hook on the end to hold the victim in place until he or she is rescued?

Most individuals who fall from the piers and embankments of New York City do not fall far. The firemen told me that the water where they found the young man was only ten feet deep. The current had pressed his body up against the pier. I must have missed him by mere feet if not inches. If any of the officers had searched the water with a pole, they would have found him right away.

It was a beautiful summer evening. As I later learned from a witness, a group of friends were horsing around by the edge of the pier. One of them climbed onto the railings, likely to impress his friends. Instead, he slipped and fell. On the way down, his head banged against the pier's edge, knocking him unconscious. He sank so fast, that by the time I arrived, ten seconds later, there was no trace of him.

The situation that led to this young man's death was commonplace to the point of being cliché. There will be other beautiful summer days. There will be other friends horsing around. We can predict with utter certainty that this will happen again.

In the wake of this tragedy, can we request a simple equipment review for the police boats on our rivers? Can we ask that they be outfitted with adequate equipment to permit the officers to locate and rescue the victim next time this happens? If they already have this equipment, may we ask that they be trained to use it?

The difference between those six minutes when the police boats docked, and when the firemen lowered down their ladder, was the difference between pulling out a person and pulling out a corpse. It was the difference between the drowned and the saved.

My experience as a lifeguard tells me that someone could have saved that young man that day. Only, it wasn't me.