Lifeguards said they knew of potentially deadly conditions at their beach for at least six years before a man drowned when the sand gave way beneath him.
Sandra Smith, of Horsham, Penn., is suing North Wildwood over the 2012 incident that killed her husband, Brad Smith, and nearly killed their 7-year-old daughter. Her lawyers want a judge to order that section of beach closed to the public to prevent another tragedy, and a hearing is set for Nov. 9.
Smith was joined at a news conference Tuesday by Domonique McNeil and Tasha Hart, who lost relatives to a similar drowning there in 2009.
“We were walking close to the water. My aunt was in knee-deep,” McNeil said. “I was talking to my cousin and just dropped. It felt like a trap door opened beneath us.”
The accident claimed the lives of Jamila Watkins, 27, and Shayne Hart, 15.
“She didn’t swim,” Hart said of her teenage daughter. “She was just getting her feet wet.”
The city, which declined to comment on the litigation, had posted two signs at the beach indicating swimming was prohibited there. But the signs made no mention of the danger of walking on sand near the water. And Sandra Smith said they were far from the water’s edge.
In a February 2016 deposition, North Wildwood’s chief lifeguard, Joseph Anthony Cavalier, said he knew of the condition for 10 years. That would date to 2006, or six years before Brad Smith died.
Cavalier said lifeguards were well aware of the propensity for sand near the water’s edge to give way when someone walked on it, due to twice-daily tidal conditions as water from the back bay drained out into Hereford Inlet.
According to court papers, beach patrol and city officials said many users of that beach didn’t want it to be protected by lifeguards because they wanted to engage in prohibited activities, including drinking alcohol and taking their dogs onto the beach.
J. Richard Weggel, a retired professor at Drexel University and a former official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which does extensive beach protection and restoration work in New Jersey, said the tidal conditions undermined sand just under the water line, creating a drop-off of 10 feet or more that’s invisible to people walking along the water’s edge.
Based on satellite and archival photos of the inlet, Weggel said the dangerous conditions at the beach may have existed on and off since the 1930s.
In July 2012, Brad Smith was walking in ankle-deep water at the beach with his daughter when the sand collapsed, plunging them and a friend into the swirling waters. A passerby on a personal watercraft rescued the girl, who was being held above the waves by her father before he drowned.
Scott Sunderland was with them, holding his own young daughter on his back, when they, too, plunged through the sand into a vortex of swirling water.
“It was just like you stepped off a ledge,” he said Tuesday. “When my left foot went down, there was nothing to catch it.”
He and his daughter managed to get back onshore and saw Smith and his daughter struggling in the inlet. Smith kept yelling his daughter’s name, until he fell silent.
Weggel said the beach needs to be closed, a suggestion echoed by a beach patrol officer who gave a deposition in the lawsuit.
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