Southern California Lifeguard Drowns During High Surf Rescue

An enormous south swell combined with beautiful weather to create treacherous conditions up and down the Southern California coast over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Among the huge waves and massive crowds was also the tragic and inexplicable drowning death of a 32 year-old Newport Beach Lifeguard, Ben Carlson, according to a press release from the City of Newport Beach:

“It is with deep sorrow that the Newport Beach Fire Department announces the on-duty death of one of our own, 32-year-old Ben Carlson – a 15-year veteran of Newport Beach Lifeguards,” reads the press release.

The tragic incident began to unfold shortly after 5:00 pm, Sunday evening, July 6.

Newport Beach Lifeguards had already made over 200 saves during the day, lifeguards pulling swimmers from the large and powerful surf that had been pounding the 6 miles of Newport beach coast line, when a call came in for lifeguards to help another swimmer in trouble.

Lifeguard Carlson responded with other lifeguards, reaching the struggling swimmer in a rescue boat. Carlson, a 15 year Newport Beach lifeguard, top swimmer and surfer, with extensive experience in very large surf, instantly jumped in to help the swimmer.

The washing machine-like conditions made reaching the swimmer challenging but lifeguard Carlson was able to do so. However, a set of 10 to 12 foot waves rolled over the pair and they disappeared from view.

The other lifeguards attempted to rescue Lifeguard Carlson, but due to the chaotic conditions, were unable to immediately locate him. The swimmer he had been helping, however, was pulled from the water and survived.

Marine Safety personnel from all over the surrounding area responded to help with the search for Lifeguard Carlson, including members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol and Laguna Beach Lifeguards, said the release. The Newport Beach Police Department helicopter joined Lifeguards and Fire staff also, with ultimately 25 people desperately searching the water while 30 more, including Newport Beach City Manager, Dave Kiff, coordinated rescue efforts from shore.

Lifeguard Carlson was finally found around 8:00 pm and taken to the hospital but was unable to be revived.

Carlson was the first lifeguard in Newport Beach history to lose his life, reports the Associated Press.

According to the lost lifeguard’s father, Chris Carlson, his son was trying to get a lifeguard job as soon as he turned 16 and got got his driver’s license, driving the hour from their inland home to Newport Beach.


“He just loved being out on the water, he loved the opportunity to help people,” said the elder 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.”

This experience was deep, with Lifeguard Carlson having surfed waves up to 30 and 40 feet and playing water polo at the University of California, Irvine. At the same time, Sunday’s 10 to 12 foot surf brought its own dangers with strong currents, rip-tides, and undertow that could challenge even the strongest of swimmers.

“He’s in paradise today, swimming with dolphins,” said Chris Carlson, finding some solace for the loss of his son in that he died doing what he loved and that he was a man of faith.

Friends of the fallen lifeguard draped his red lifeguard jacket over the bar at a local lifeguard hangout, an Irish pub near the beach. Outside was a saying, “Ben would go. We love you. You will be missed.”

Over 100,000 people packed the sands of Newport Beach on the tragic Sunday that Lifeguard Ben Carlson lost his life, and a freak shark attack up the coast made for another rare incident for Southern California beaches. The shark attack victim survived, along with many other swimmers that got caught in the huge surf, thanks to people like Lifeguard Ben Carlson.

Image courtesy, the City of Newport Beach