Last Updated: 1:23 p.m.
A 17-year-old first-year lifeguard was seriously injured during training on the beach around 2nd Street South in Flagler Beach Monday morning, injuring his spine.
The lifeguard was flown to Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach and was to be taken to a hospital in Orlando.
The accident took place around 11 a.m. as lifeguards were conducting training exercises. In this particular case, the lifeguards were practicing “dolphin dives” into the surf, running in from the beach, a routine exercise.
“It’s an unfortunate accident,” Flagler Beach Fire Chief Bobby Pace said. “The lifeguards are always going to train and they train hard. They were doing their dolphin dives. Unfortunately this young man hit a sand bar and injured his spine.” Pace said the sand bar had not been identified ahead of time. “We’re all on pins and needles, hoping for a positive outcome. He’s in our thoughts and prayers, hoping for the best for him.”
The Flagler Beach Fire Department was dispatched to the scene minutes after 11 a.m., as was Flagler Beach Fire Rescue 11, the county ambulance stationed in Flagler Beach. Other lifeguards had immediately come to the 17 year old’s assistance.
Flagler County Fire Flight, the emergency helicopter, was called in and landed near North central Avenue. He was in stable condition at Halifax hospital on Tuesday. “He’s keeping good spirits, but he also wants some clarity on the extent of his injury,” Pace said.
Lifeguards were training for the Southeast Regional Lifeguard Competition going on right now in Siesta Key near Sarasota. “We talked about not even going to the competition because they were really upset about it and shaken,” Tom Gillin, Flagler Beach’s director of parks and recreation, who also supervises the lifeguard team, said from Siesta Key today. “But they all actually went down to the hospital yesterday before they came here, and spent some time with him,. That was good, it lifted his spirits a little bit.”
The two-day competition is scheduled in mid-week so as not to drain beaches of lifeguards on weekends, when they’re on duty most. Eight lifeguards from Flagler Beach are participating today, with one more on the way. “It’s good for them to do it,” Gillin said. “We need to keep praying, keep supporting, keep visiting, and we need to do what he wanted us to do, and that’s keep guarding. We’re just hopeful and praying that next year he’ll be back.”
Meanwhile, the 17-year-old’s teammates have waited like everyone else for any improvement in the lifeguard’s condition. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” Gillin said. “It’s definitely a fracture of two cervical vertebrae, which is serious, and he’s got very little feeling in his fingers and shoulders, a little bit of movement. He did feel somebody touching his foot yesterday, that’s a good sign. We can’t say anything yet or give a prognosis yet but we’re hopeful the paralysis is caused by the swelling, and that it will subside. We’re praying and hoping for the best.”
The accident quickly caught attention on social media, where there was some inaccurate speculation about the accident having been the result of a dive off the pier. Lifeguards do not dive off the pier, Pace said.
The city has a corps of some 24 lifeguards, half of it paid for with an $82,500 grant from county government, the other half by the city. Lifeguards inevitably have accidents, but “not of this significance,” Pace said. “We’ll have some twisted ankles, cuts and scrapes during training. But this one, at least in my tenure there, I couldn’t tell you a time I remember something like this.” Pace has been with the city 16 years.
Gillin described the exercise as porpoising through the surf, diving under an oncoming wave and emerging on the other side as the quickest way to get to a rescue. At times, lifeguards strike the bottom. “It’s really more common than people realize but we’re fortunate, a lot of times it’s dislocated shoulders, minor injuries,” Gillin said. In this case, the drill was taking place at low tide. “It’s one of those things like driving a car, you get on the highway and there’s always that risk of an accident, you do everything right, you’re a defensive driver, but accidents happen. It’s a terrible situation.”