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Lost, found on the beach -- all in a day's work

Lifeguards can spot children who've strayed from their families from a distance. Reassuring parents is another thing.

September 30, 2007|Abigail Tucker | Baltimore Sun

ocean city, md. -- Perched at the top of his chair, the lifeguard swooped his orange signal flags, signing the letters of a girl's name.

"S-A-R-A," said Crew Chief Ben Davis, interpreting the code from his spot several hundred feet down the beach. His sun-bleached eyebrows bunched in a squint. "S-E-V -- she's 7. Her trunk color is blue."

And so on this shadeless Saturday in Ocean City, Sara-7-Blue became the first lost child. She would soon be joined by Isabel-About4-Orange, Ian-6-Spiderman and Ashley-4-Pink, not to be confused with Annie-4-PinkPolkaDot, and many others.

In the high season, it's not uncommon for as many as 100 children to get lost in a single day on the 10-mile-long resort beach. About 2,000 children go officially missing every summer: They get found by alert beachgoers or the guards themselves, who pride themselves on never having lost a lost child.

"After a while, they just stick out like sore thumbs," says Davis, a veteran of the beach patrol, which has about 90 guards along the shore. "A lost kid just looks like a lost kid. You see him. You lock eyes with him. And you know."

The guards have practically made a science of reuniting families, watching the sand as much as the water for signs of distress and passing the same information -- the child's name, age and bathing suit color -- up and down the more than 150 city blocks of beach. Along with flag signals, they use radio dispatches: brisk, extremely business-like announcements that cut through walkie-talkie static:

"Found girl on 7th street. Name Haley. Age 6. Trunks blue. Carrying a purple bucket."

And yet, no matter how many children go astray in a day, they are the stars of their own dramas of loss and recovery.

Longtime members of the Ocean City beach patrol can look at a stretch of shore and tell whether conditions are ripe for losing children.

The worst time is in late July and August, on scorching days when the beach is crowded, the sideways current is strong and high tide hits early, causing families to spread their towels farther back on the sand. Once the water retreats and the powerful current nudges swimmers up the coast, mommy and daddy are that much harder to see.

So the children drift.

Parents seem to underestimate the amount of ground a child can cover. Even little ones have been known to stray for miles, finally turning up in the dunes of Delaware. They almost always walk in the same direction: with the wind at their back.

The profile of these young wanderers is difficult to pin down. Most are between the ages of 4 and 9, elementary schoolers who stay closer to shore. Some lose their bearings by chasing seagulls or brightly colored bathing suits. One was described by his mother as "a dreamer."

Once in a lifeguard's custody, some kids are nonchalant, too intent on the soft serve cones that they had been pursuing. But others assume the lifeguards are strangers straight out of their parents' most dire prophecies, especially when they are offered the lollipops many guards keep handy. These skeptics take one look at the candy and run.

"Some of them run faster than I can," said Garrett Lee, a longtime guard. He recalled one stout 9-year-old who "tucked his chin and ran straight at me." Lee leaped out of the way and the rampaging child charged up the beach. When the next lifeguard in his path spread her arms wide to catch him, he plowed into her like a linebacker. She went flying; he kept running.

"You never know what they'll do," Lee said.

Lost boy Nathan-6-BluewithBatman appeared to be of an easier temperament as he huddled in the shadow of the guard chair. The plastic bucket beside him held a single perfect oyster shell; perhaps it was the reason he wandered so far from friends and family. Nathan appeared not to care about his treasure now. A tear slid down his tanned cheek.

"Wanna come sit up on the stand with me?" asked Connor Braniff, 21, the lifeguard in charge.

The boy clambered up beside him. After learning how to signal "hi" with the orange flags, he turned more hopeful eyes to the ocean, as though his mother might soon paddle into view.

There are some children who seem less lost than left behind by their parents. Guards tell incredible stories, which they swear are true, of finding infants too young to walk, and a father who said to please call if his 12-year-old daughter turned up, but he really had to be getting back to Baltimore.

More often, though, parents are frantic, assuming that their children have drowned. They sprint down the beach; they faint; they return to their condos to have nervous breakdowns. They demand that the Coast Guard be called, that the depths of the ocean be scoured.

"For you, it happens once, but for us, it happens 2,000 times a year," Capt. Butch Arbin, head of the beach patrol, often tells them, with the easy manner of a man who has spent the last 36 summers on the beach.

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