Confusion Heard on 911 Calls About Distressed Swimmers

July 08--OCEAN CITY, N.J. -- The first 911 caller about swimmers screaming for help described his location as "the shore . . . out here by the boardwalk."

Another narrowed it down to "at the Ocean City New Jersey Shore, and there are people drowning."

The location of the after-hours swimmers on Sunday evening, June 29 -- including 14-year-old Corinthian Hammond of Philadelphia, who drowned, while 14 others were eventually rescued -- was clear to anyone familiar with Ocean City: the busy Ninth Street beach just below the Music Pier.

But would-be good Samaritans that day seemed to have no idea where they were. The first caller gave the dispatcher his best guess: 14th Street.

It took nearly six minutes for the beach patrol response unit to get to the correct location.

Ocean City Police Capt. Steven Ang said Monday that the city would look to add "more obvious signage" on the busy beaches to help people give proper locations.

The Ocean City Beach Patrol has increased evening hours on the busy Eighth, Ninth and 12th Streets beaches to 8 p.m. seven days a week through Labor Day. It previously had expanded patrols to Friday and Saturday evenings and kept a rapid-response team out until 8 p.m. at the Beach Patrol Headquarters at 12th Street.

The body of the boy was recovered four days later in the water near the Ocean City-Longport Bridge.

The Hammond family had said it was unable to pay for its transport back to Philadelphia and appealed for community help through a Bank of America fund in Corinthian Hammond's name.

Ang said Monday afternoon that the family had taken custody of the body through a private funeral home.

The 911 tapes -- first reported by NBC10 and released in full Monday to The Inquirer -- portrayed a distressing loss of time as the dispatchers continued to build on the initial error by the caller.

Confusion over piers -- the Music Pier near Ninth and the Fishing Pier near 14th Street -- also delayed the response to the correct location as the dispatcher honed in on the initial error of 14th Street.

"We're by the boardwalk. I'm in Ocean City, N.J.," a third caller reports when asked, "Where?"

"Near 14th Street?" the dispatcher says, relying on the first erroneous caller.

"I'm not sure exactly where I am," responds the caller. "I'm at Kohr Bros., by where the restrooms are."

"You're near the pier that goes out in the ocean?" the dispatcher asks, still referring to 14th Street, despite the additional clue of restrooms. There are public restrooms at Eighth and 12th Streets.

"Yes."

"Ok, yeah, they're on their way out."

Finally, one distraught caller corrects the dispatcher. "There's some kids drifting off into the ocean," she reports, repeatedly saying, "Oh, my God."

"14th Street?" asks the dispatcher.

"Is this 14th Street?" the woman is heard saying. "This is Ninth and the boardwalk."

The tapes also reflect efforts by civilians to rescue the initial swimmers. "There's no lifeguards out here," says a distraught caller, identified only as Tiffany, who first corrected the location. "They still need help. This guy can't get all of the kids. They're way far out there."

The 911 dispatcher eventually was able to view the rescue operation through remote cameras mounted on the Music Pier. Ang said the cameras -- financed with a grant -- are designed to provide boardwalk merchants with extra security and so are not routinely aimed at the ocean.

Landmark businesses like Haunted Golf or Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard could refer to numerous locations on the boardwalk, Ang said, though there is only one actual Haunted Golf, at 832 Boardwalk. There are Kohr stores at Ninth and 12th Streets on the boardwalk.

"One caller said, 'I'm in front of Haunted Golf,' " Ang said. "We have numerous golf courses that could be classified under that category."

Reached Monday at Beach Patrol Headquarters, Senior Lt. Dennis Swan said the expanded patrols reflected an evolving trend of evening and nighttime ocean swimming. Visitors looking to skip paying for beach tags will come after hours, he said, and they're often those unfamiliar with the resort.

"Everyone did the best from the call that came in," Swan said. "Our team was dispatched to 14th Street. They could only respond where they're directed."

A lifeguard on a Jet Ski was able to redirect to Ninth Street in a matter of minutes, he said.

"The major error," he said, "was going into the ocean when the beach was unguarded."

He reiterated that numerous signs from boardwalk to beach said that the beach was closed to swimming and that swimming near the jetty was dangerous.

"All of those things put in place to avoid the situation -- none of those things were heeded," he said. "It put a lot of people in a really tough situation."

Whether hours end at 5:30, as they did previously on weekdays, or the current 8, lifeguards at Ninth Street get everyone out of the water when they go off duty and make it clear that swimming is now dangerous.

"The guys on Ninth Street make [visitors] promise they won't go back in the water," Swan said. "Lo and behold, as soon as the lifeguards leave, you see people returning anyway, disregarding the warnings."

arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

www.inquirer.com/

downashore

Inquirer staff writer Joseph N. DiStefano contributed to this article.

Copyright 2014 - The Philadelphia Inquirer

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