‘We cannot wait for another tragedy’: Coney Island pleads for city help amid lifeguard shortage

lifeguard standing on beach coney island
Coney Island locals are hoping the city will address the ongoing lifeguard shortage after a teen drowned last weekend.
File photo by Todd Maisel

After a 15-year-old boy drowned in Coney Island over the weekend while reportedly swimming at an unguarded section of the beach, locals are pleading with city leaders to address what they say is an ongoing lifeguard shortage.

According to a police spokesperson, two lifeguards spotted two minors in distress in the water on July 27 between West 22nd Street and Riegelmann Boardwalk. New York Police Department Emergency Service Harbor and Aviation units responded to the scene to search for the two children. They soon rescued a 14-year-old swimmer and treated him for non-life-threatening issues.

NYPD remained on the scene to look for the other teen, who has not recovered until the night of July 29. Paramedics pronounced the boy dead at the scene. 

In a letter addressed to Susan Donoghue, commissioner for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Community Board 13 said the death was brought on by the lack of appropriate monitors and called the deficiency “unacceptable.” 

“The lack of lifeguards at our beach is a problem we have been complaining about for many years and despite our many pleas for additional lifeguards at numerous borough consultation meetings, the problem has only worsened,” the letter said. “With much of the summer still ahead and more heatwaves to come, we need to be proactive and take steps to make sure another tragedy like this does not occur.”

According Council Member Ari Kagan, who represents Coney Island, the parts department only recruited 800 of the needed 1,400 guards for this year’s swimming season, shorting them hundreds of guards.

The neighborhood faced the same problem last year, and despite pleading with the city to address the short this year, Kagan and other locals are frustrated to see large parts of the shore front left unattended.

“Department of Parks is constantly saying it’s a national problem and nobody wants to work as a lifeguard,” Kagan said. “But it’s still no excuse. New York City cannot be like this all the time and I cannot have it like this all the time.”

A spokesperson with the Parks department said recruitment is a year-long process which has allowed them to open parts of Coney Beach that were closed at the start of summer.

“We’re saddened by last Thursday’s tragic event and our thoughts are with the young man’s family during this time,” the spokesperson said. “While our number of beach lifeguards and open sections in Coney Island has increased since the start of the summer, some sections do remain closed – we urge New Yorkers to only swim in open sections during lifeguard hours.”

Closed sections of the beach are marked with signs or red flags. Swimming is prohibited in areas where a lifeguard is not on duty and in closed sections.

According to Kagan’s office, the deceased teen lived in a shelter in the Bronx and was visiting friends and family in Coney Island, according to CBS News. His death came shortly after Amadou Thiam, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn, was recovered from Jacob Riis State Park in the Rockaway Queens and later died at the hospital.

Kagan was told NYC Parks was supposed to have more water monitors by the July 4th holiday however he said he hasn’t seen any improvement.

“It’s like this every summer. It’s terrible and it’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “We have a large shore front area and so many beaches and Coney Island should have enough lifeguards. It should not be an annual problem.

coney island lifeguard on beach
Locals say the shortage is ongoing, and urged the city to make lifeguard jobs more appealing to bridge the gap. File photo by Todd Maisel

Angela Kravtchenko, a local mom and neighborhood advocate, proposed NYC Parks make the job more attractive and respectable in order to recruit more staff. Kravtchenko said the salary for the lifeguards isn’t enough to attract enough employees. 

“It’s not enough when you are responsible for someone’s life. The lifeguards save our lives,” she told Brooklyn Paper.

She said people who want to be guards should be offered other incentives such as discounted MTA fare, free swimming classes and preparation courses. 

Governor Kathy Hochul addressed salary concerns last year when she bumped the pay for upstate facilities 34%, from $14.95 per hour to $20 per hour, and 21% for lifeguards at downstate facilities, from $18.15 per hour to $22 per hour. 

The governor has not announced a pay raise this, year however the city raised the salary for first and second-year lifeguards to over $21 per hour. 

While most attempts seem futile, Kagan and other leaders hope city leaders will respond their call for help before another death occurs.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “We cannot wait for another tragedy.”

(Update Aug. 4 at 10:27 a.m.): This story has been updated to allow comment from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.