Surfer Drowns In Choppy Currents Off Rockaways Despite Firefighters' Effort

NY Daily News - November 13, 2009

by Oren Yaniv, Brendan Brosh and Jonathan Lemire

A surfer drowned in the storm-tossed currents off the Rockaways Thursday despite the valiant rescue effort of firefighters.

Rough waves up to eight feet high from a storm churning up the East Coast drew thrill-seekers to the Queens beach in the morning.

The 36-year-old victim was knocked off his board near a jetty along the boardwalk.

"I just saw his surfboard bobbing up and down, tangled near the rocks [and] I called it in," said Nick Gavigan, who was walking the beach with a metal detector at 9:30 a.m.

"They called me back and said it was an abandoned board," said Gavigan, 49. "I said, 'I don't think so.'"

Within minutes, two firefighters donned wetsuits and swam more than 50 yards into the 50-degree water in an attempt to reach the submerged surfer.

"I pulled him out of the water and put him back on the board," said Firefighter Casey Skudin. "He was unconscious and not breathing."

Skudin and Firefighter Evan Davis - both of Ladder 137 - said the surfer was tethered to his board, which was stuck on the rocks, but the surf kept his head below water.

"The challenge was the strong current and high winds," said Casey, 33, who has been with the FDNY for four years.

The firefighters towed the surfer, who was underwater more than six minutes, back to shore and rushed him to Peninsula General Hospital.

The man, whose name was not immediately released, died a few minutes later.

"We saw him dragged out of the water - the current was strong," said David Monasterky, 33, who surfs nearly every day. "He was a new surfer [and] we didn't know him too well. It's sad."

Surfers said the strong waves caused by storms are alluring - and potentially dangerous.

"Some people don't have the skill to be out here," said Xavier Vallarta, 38, an avid surfer. "If you can't handle the current, can't paddle out, just go back to your car. No one is going to judge you."

Others said the Rockaway surf - which claimed six lives this summer - is hazardous even if there's no storm.

"The water there - it forms a V under water, a dangerous trench," said Adam Sand, 42, a longtime surfer who lives a block from the beach. "I've been stuck in it before. It's hard to get out.

"You have to stick with the buddy system," Sand said. "This guy went out alone."