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Despite Placid Appearances, 2 Water Tragedies in O.C.

May 20, 2000|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Given the conditions, no one should have drowned.

The seas off Newport Beach were mild Thursday with 3-foot waves under a warm late-spring sun. In Anaheim, afternoon temperatures in the mid-80s drew more than a dozen adults and children to the Pepperwood condominium complex swimming pool, witnesses said.

Still, two youths died: 17-year-old Armando Briseno of Santa Ana, who was swept from Newport Beach by an unexpected rip current; and 6-year-old Dominic Cervantes of Anaheim, who apparently slipped underwater unnoticed in the busy condo pool.

"It's so sad," said Ana Chishty, 29, who was relaxing in a hot tub when she heard neighbors screaming as Dominic was discovered in the pool. "Everything happened so fast. Everybody was there, but nobody saw him."

As two families struggled with their losses Friday, officials pointed to the tragedies as sharp reminders of the capricious nature of water as the traditional countdown to summer--the Memorial Day holiday--begins.

Diligence is the best safeguard, officials said.

"If you have people swimming in a pool, you have to have an adult or someone dedicated to being the one who watches the water, not doing any other activity," said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Paul Hunter, who is in charge of the department's water safety program.

At the time Armando was swept away, only a few Newport Beach lifeguards were on duty, said John Blauer, spokesman for the Newport Beach Fire Department.

"None of our guard towers were open," he said. "It's not typical to have them open on a weekday during this time of year."

He said surf was light, and before Armando's drowning, lifeguards had not recorded any incidents or problems.

"Today we have probably two or three times the number of people out on the beach, yet there haven't been any problems," Blauer said. "The fact is: It can happen at any point in time."

With the National Weather Service predicting warm weather and increased surf for today and Sunday, local beaches could be busy. Extra lifeguards were to be on hand at Newport Beach, but most beaches won't gear up for the summer swim season until after schools get out in mid-June, officials said.

The drownings also came before the Orange County Fire Authority could launch its annual water-safety awareness campaign, set to begin next month, Hunter said. Four events are planned to promote water safety and display such safety devices as heavy-strength pool covers. The first will be June 6 at South Lake Beach Club in Irvine.

Similar events were conducted last year too. But eight children still drowned, most of them in pools, Hunter said.

The dangers of the sea are different.

While rip currents often are associated with high surf, they also are present when surf is light, said Don Whitlow, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. Rip currents develop when successive waves trap water near the shore's edge, forcing it to low spots on the sea floor and then back out to sea.

Rip Currents Are a Constant Danger

"There's usually always some kind of rip currents out there," he said. "When you get heavier surf, there's more water coming in so the rip current will be stronger as more water is going out. There's always a pileup of water toward the coastline, and the water has to go back. It's just gravity."

An experienced swimmer can usually ride out a rip current by swimming parallel to shore--swimming against the current only tires you out--until there no longer is a seaward push of water, he said.

"If you're not an experienced swimmer, then even a weak rip current will drag you out, and then you panic and you drown," Whitlow said.

Rip currents occur near piers, where the pilings break incoming surf and allow the water to recede, he said. In other areas, they can be detected from the beach by looking "for the soup or the foam that travels out beyond the breaker line," Whitlow said.

Incoming waves also are lower in rip current areas, a potential problem for parents of young children who mistake the lower waves for safer waters.

"If you teach your kids to swim at a young age, that's the smartest thing to do," Whitlow said. "And if you take them to the beach, tell them about the rip currents and how to get out of them."

Kevin Snow, a marine safety officer for Laguna Beach, said more than half of lifeguard rescues there involve people caught in rip currents.

"The real issue is, this time of year, generally there's not going to be guards in the [lifeguard] towers," he said, because full staffing doesn't begin until June 24, after school is out. In the off-season, as few as three guards are on duty at any given time; in full season, there are 46 lifeguards on duty, he said.

Other beaches maintain similar schedules. And, when lifeguard towers are staffed, they use standard signals to warn swimmers of surf conditions. A green flag means conditions are relatively safe. A yellow flag means conditions are hazardous and swimmers should use caution. A red flag means waters are dangerous and swimmers enter at their own risk.

But even a green flag doesn't guarantee safety.

No flags were flying at Newport Beach on Thursday when Armando drowned because the guard towers weren't open, Blauer said. Had they been open, he said, a green flag probably would have been flying.

"There basically weren't dangerous conditions," he said.

* LOSS AND GRIEF

Relatives and friends in Anaheim and Santa Ana mourned the two youths' deaths. A21

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