Image by cleopatra69 via Flickr One of my most "popular" Facebook status updates in recent history was when I shared how two children had gone missing at the beach that Saturday. I was part of a video crew that followed the San Diego lifeguards on rescues and beach patrols across Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla, for The Weather Channel's first reality documentary.
With around 30,000 people populating the beaches each day on the weekends - even as summer is waning, I found it amazing that there weren't MORE crises. What occurred during my five days of trolling the beach were a few stingray stings, a nasty sunburn, a woman who experienced heat exhaustion and one who suffered from hypothermia, a woman who hurt her neck while trying to ride the simulated wave at the Wave House, a drunk and disorderly guy, and of course the two missing children.
I learned a lot about this all-too-common and excruciating scenario. First, San Diego lifeguards enjoy a 100% success rate in reuniting every missing child with their family. This lovely statistic does a lot to help calm the frayed nerves of the shell-shocked parent who has no idea where their child is. The parent of course feels horrible about letting that child out of their sight, but these things happen. Especially if the child has an "agenda."
In the case of little Monica, she became separated from the rest of her family while they were hiking towards the Mission Beach jetty. By the time they realized she was gone, and enlisted the aid of the lifeguards, Monica had ended up walking in the opposite direction all the way to Lifeguard Tower 23 which is about a mile and a half from the jetty. Monica was eight years old. According to the lifeguard at Tower 21, he had observed a small girl without any apparent accompaniment, just merrily strolling along the boardwalk. Because the first priority of a tower lifeguard is to keep watch on the water, he took note of the child and was able to respond by radio to the main lifeguard tower when they put the call out with a description of Monica. By that time she had reached Tower 23 where she was gathered up into a beach patrol vehicle and then reunited with her family.
Sergeant Rick Strobel, who has orchestrated more child-family reunions than you'd probably care to know about, said that children tend to walk away from the sun and the wind because it's uncomfortable for them. Thus it is logical that Monica had turned to walk in the opposite direction.
In the case of little Alex, another eight-year-old, his family had been making a final use of the bathroom prior to heading back home to Montana. It seems plausible that Alex was not quite ready to leave San Diego, and so he trekked from Mission Bay, crossing frenetic Mission Bouleverd, and ended up at Tower 13 south of the rollercoaster. He must have had second thoughts, as it was he who alerted the lifeguards that he had been separated from his family.
In both cases, there was a panic-stricken angst for about two hours until child and family were together again. Not having had children of my own, I can only imagine the stark terror that one would feel to have no idea what had become of your loved one. The mother of Alex said that she was haunted by the thought that her child would end up on Amber Alert.
Sergeant Strobel offered up some words of advice to help prevent the separation of a child from their family. First, when you arrive at the beach, make sure you tell your children where you are going to hang out. Don't use generic locators like "blue tent" or "yellow beach blanket." Instead, use the lifeguard tower as a marker - for instance, halfway between towers 13 and 14. Next, instruct your child that if they get lost, they should approach a lifeguard and let them know.
For that matter, a lifeguard should be your all-around beach guide. If you are into surfing, they can tell you where the best waves are, or where the rip currents are. It is their sworn duty to protect and serve beach-goers and they WANT you to ask for their help. When it comes to safety, there is no such thing as a stupid question.