A calamity of mistakes could have been deadlier. So what would you do about dangerous choppers and a sand-filled computer after a little girl drown?
On June 22, 12-year-old Nicole Suriel lost her life in the sea of Long Beach, NY. I was there. A friend told me more details just last week that made me want to write about this again. She said Nicole could not swim. Her teacher apparently wasn’t alert when a group young girls went into the water for a dip.
I was alerted to the rescue operation in a shocking way. The skies were calm. Suddenly, a helicopter appeared out of nowhere and seemed to want to land directly on my head. I sat in the shadow of the chopper as if bravely waiting to be crushed. It was like a scene out of a movie. I was there working on my class assignments. My briefcase and papers scattered far across the sand, my computer was swirling in the wind from the blades. I felt I had landed in a war zone with a helicopter deliberately intimidating me.
What are the FAA rules for pilots to keep their distance from living people? Is it 500 feet or more? The helicopter came back again and again to hover only about 20 feet over sun bathers. I watched as people ducked and rubbed sand from their eyes and bodies. What was going on? There were at least four choppers in all, but one was extremely aggressive and swerving low over sunbathers. Why are they bothering us? After collecting my things in the tornado of chopper-blown sand, I saw the crowd of people in the distance. A passerby said that was where a girl had been in the water for almost an hour because no one knew she was missing, Then it hit me that someone had died. I began to blog about this as part of my assignment for one class, but too much in shock to do my homework for another.
That week I saw the story on the news. I had just returned from class where I discovered that my computer stopped working. I turned it upside down in class and speckles of sand fell out. The video I saw on TV that night looked like it was taken from the point of view of where I was sitting on the beach. Now I wanted to know whether the news media was responsible for putting beach-goers lives in danger and damaging my laptop computer.
The next morning I called the Long Beach police precinct. I explained to the community affairs officer where I was and what I saw on TV. He said, “It’s possible. Those news crews can be vultures.” I said, “That’s exactly how it seemed that day.” He gave me a list of all of the helicopter operators on the beach that day -- Channel 12, WBCS, NYPD, Nassau County Police Marine Aviation Bureau. I called Channel 12 first. After explaining my problem, the person gruffly said, “I’m busy. I will have someone get back to you.”
Next I called the Nassau County Police Department. I went through a few levels before reaching a commanding officer who snapped me out of my trauma by yelling at me. He went into a tirade about the little girl died and how they had been trying to find her body. I said, “But you were putting people’s lives in danger.” I reminded him that Long Beach police involved in a recovery of another drown victim raced their vehicle across the sand, rolled over a sun bather and broke his back and neck. That victim survived. Like like me, he was hundreds of yards away from the drowning. I said to the officer, “You should watch out for the safety of people who are far away from the event” and he yelled, “Why didn’t you move!? This was a police operation! This was a little girl who had drown!” “I didn’t move because I didn’t know,” I said. "I was more than 300 yards away."
He was obviously still affected by the tragedy. I told him that rescue events are dramatic, but that rescuers are most effective when they remain calm. If they want us to move, they should have a land vehicle unit clear the section of the beach. Then I asked him, “Do you hover over people during a rescue operation?” His answer was, “Of course we do! We hover all the time.” He then gave a contact name and number to contact about my broken computer.
But I wanted to completely rule out the news organizations creating danger as we have heard they do in Los Angeles. So I called WCBS-TV. I had seen the crew filing the story from the parking lot that day. After a series of calls, I received an answer from the news desk. “The FAA does not allow us hover over scenes. We have to be at least 2,000 feet away. We’re tracked by control towers and they know exactly where we are. It wasn’t us who hovered over the sun bathers.”
I did receive a form from the police department to start the claim process but this is not really about a computer. The form is still sitting on my desk and my computer still freezes up. What's more important for me is to make suggestions on how police can safely handle recovery missions. What would you suggest?
I wish there were something that I could do about Nicole Suriel. I just remember realizing that a death had occurred and praying that her body would wash ashore so that her family could have peace. I prayed and prayed, mesmerized by a vision that the body would appear in the shore in front of me, some 300 yards away from the event. I believe everyone on the beach was praying she would appear in front of them too. A few minutes later she did. The lifeguards practicing what I likened to "linklove” in my blog that day on June 22nd, linking hands in the water to search for her body. They found her near where she had disappeared.
My friend who told me last week that Nicole could not swim, also said that the teacher in charge of the field trip had been fired. I wondered whether the teacher was the same young woman I saw flash on TV who was wailing open-mouthed in grief on the beach that day. Like Nicole’s family, she will likely never fully recover from this. What should other teachers know about safety on the beach? What about improvements from the municipality that runs the beach? All I can hope is that time will offer lessons and help to heal the wounds of this terrible tragedy. I hope the police, themselves will be more careful and think of others when they are undertaking stressful missions so that greater calamities will never occur.