NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Lifeguards along more than 6 miles of pristine sand in this Southern California beach city had rescued more than 200 people by the time the call came to help a distressed swimmer east of one of the main piers.
Ben Carlson, a lifeguard with 15 years of experience, sped out with other guards in a rescue boat Sunday and jumped into the water, but he quickly disappeared under 10- to 12-foot waves.
The 32-year-old, a passionate surfer and one of the fastest swimmers on the 200-strong mostly seasonal lifeguard staff, was pronounced dead late Sunday after rescuers searched for him by air, water and foot for three hours. He was the first lifeguard to die in Newport Beach, where locals and tourists alike flock to enjoy wide sandy beaches and waves that attract the attention of surfers worldwide.
"He just loved being out on the water, he loved the opportunity to help people," said his father, Chris Carlson. "He was a water monster — that was one of the things that was so unbelievable to us; a lowly 10-foot wave would take him out because he was so experienced."
He said his son knew how to handle himself in 30- and 40-foot waves while surfing.
"It's one of those professions that people think you're getting in the way of fun, or it's kind of a cakewalk job, and something like this happens, and people realize how truly dangerous it can be," Carlson said.
The swimmer, who has not been identified by authorities, was brought to shore and survived.
Conditions Sunday were especially treacherous, with swells of 12 feet or more crashing in without warning and a strong current that took swimmers by surprise. Around 100,000 people packed the beach with about 80 lifeguards on duty, said Rob Williams, the city's chief lifeguard.
"It's not typical that we always have 10- to 12-foot surf, but it does happen once or twice a year, and it happened to be a Sunday with fantastic weather on a holiday weekend," said Williams, whose guards made more than 200 rescues and issued 3,000 warnings to beachgoers that day. The city gets 10 million beach visitors annually.
The National Weather Service had warned Sunday of dangerous rip currents and high surf along Southern California beaches due to a swell originating in the Southern Hemisphere.
Beachgoers said Monday that a particularly huge swell surged ashore in the late afternoon, drenching blankets and upsetting picnics. Shortly after, rescue boats buzzed between the waves and helicopters began flying low over the water up and down the beach.
"The waves were huge. I saw it and I thought a tsunami was coming," said Shirley Reinker, 72, who has lived along the beach for 40 years.
The fallen lifeguard was raised in the inland suburbs of Southern California but always loved the ocean. As soon as Ben Carlson was old enough to get a driver's license, he tried to get a lifeguard job about an hour's drive away in Newport Beach, his father said.
He traveled to surf big waves and played water polo at the University of California, Irvine. And while worked as beverages director for the Wahoo's Fish Taco restaurant chain, he would lifeguard whenever he could, the elder Carlson said.
He was one of the fastest swimmers on staff, Williams said. All lifeguards must be able to swim 0.6 miles in under 20 minutes and requalify annually, but Carlson had additional training to work on a boat as a rescue swimmer and drive patrol vehicles, Williams said. As a seasonal guard, Carlson made about $22 an hour.
Friends hung his red lifeguard jacket over the bar at a local Irish pub blocks from the beach, a lifeguard hangout. A sign outside read: "Ben would go. We love you. You will be missed."
An autopsy was scheduled for Tuesday.
For his part, the elder Carlson takes some solace in that his son died doing what he loved most, and that he was a man of faith.
"He's in paradise today — swimming with dolphins," he said.