WILLIAMSBURG, Brooklyn (PIX11) — A 5-year-old boy was saved after nearly drowning in McCarren Park’s public pool in Williamsburg on Sunday evening, a tragedy narrowly averted as the city faces a shortage of lifeguards.
A near-riot ensued after pool goers got angry over what many called a slow and uncaring response by lifeguards.
After the boy went under, a good Samaritan, Anthony Torres, dove into the pool, pulled the child to the surface, and assisted with CPR until he got more assistance, according to eyewitnesses. That help, they said, didn’t come nearly fast enough.
“There was a gentleman with a child in his arms screaming, ‘I need help, I need help!'” said Stephanie Brown, who’d been on the pool deck Sunday evening when tragedy struck. “He was trying to help the child.”
That description of how things unfolded was supported in Torres’s own account.
“From the time I brought him up to the surface and out onto the ledge, still not one lifeguard had come to aid,” Torres, 37, told the New York Daily News. “I put the boy on the ledge of the pool and he was just expelling water and mucus.”
But the Parks Department on Monday disputed that account, saying that multiple on-duty lifeguards rushed to the boy’s aid.
“Two NYC Parks lifeguards ran to aid the child and administered CPR responsive to a patron’s cries for help after they removed the child from the water,” a department spokesperson said in a statement.
Sources told PIX11 News the lifeguards had to run from across the pool to reach the child, while two other lifeguards remained in their chairs to continue monitoring other swimmers.
Those other two lifeguards, according to Brown, had been just a few feet from the child when Torres brought him out of the water.
“[They] had this nonchalant, ‘I blew the whistle, and that’s that,’ that’s their attitude,” Brown said. “Neither one of them explained, ‘Listen, I’m sorry, this is the procedure,'” she continued. “Neither one of them said nothing. They just stood there.”
On Monday, some people who’d visited the McCarren Park pool said that it takes more than lifeguards to keep them safe.
“First is my responsibility,” said pool goer Itzmary Dominguez, “not just the lifeguard.”
“I shouldn’t be distracted with my phone, or getting distracted with somebody else,” she said.
Julio Hernandez, who used to be a lifeguard at the McCarren Park pool, but was not on hand on Sunday, said that what had happened is part of a larger issue.
“The biggest problem isn’t really the lifeguards,” he said. “It’s really the city. They should be hiring more people. they should be paying them more.”
“I believe rookie [lifeguards] got a raise this year, but older lifeguards didn’t and they’re very upset about that as well,” Hernandez said.
The local city councilmember, Lincoln Restler, said that he’d received many complaints from constituents about the way lifeguards handled the emergency.
“There are real issues around staffing,” the councilmember said, “around lines of sight the lifeguards have, around the timeliness of the response when we’re in a crisis, that we need to have revisited, we need to have investigated.”
The NYPD has launched an investigation. The incident unfolded on the sixth day of a heat wave that gripped the Big Apple, as New Yorkers across the city flocked to public pools in an attempt to cool off.
It also came amid lifeguard shortages at the city, state, and national levels, despite efforts to boost numbers through temporary pay hikes. As of June 25, the city Parks Department had 658 certified lifeguards on staff. The agency aims to have about 1,500 lifeguards working at the city’s pools and beaches, a spokeswoman said at the time. The Parks Department on Monday was expected to release an update on how many lifeguards are now on staff.
However, the relatively low numbers of lifeguards, coupled with the handling of Sunday evening’s emergency, left the eyewitness feeling just one way.
“That was my first time there,” said Brown, “and I promise you, it will be my last.”