Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, FL, Officials Consider Lifeguards after Girl Dies in Sand Hole

Feb. 29, 2024
Pompano Beach Fire Rescue crews patrol the beach twice per shift while volunteers and deputies also make checks.


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The small town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea has been catapulted into the public eye since the death of 7-year-old Sloan Mattingly a week ago when she and her brother became trapped in the sand as they dug a hole, reviving a decades-old discussion about the need for lifeguards on the two-and-a-half miles of beach.

The Mattingly family was visiting from Indiana. Sloan and her brother Maddox, 9, had dug an estimated 5- to 6-foot-deep hole that collapsed in on them, completely burying Sloan underneath her brother, who survived. Sloan was pronounced dead at the hospital that afternoon.

The town commission began a discussion about the possibility of using taxpayer dollars to employ lifeguards and of reviewing beach ordinances to prohibit digging holes in the sand at a special meeting Tuesday afternoon. The commission did not take any action but asked the town manager for further research to discuss in the future.

Mayor Chris Vincent read a note he received from one of Sloan’s relatives at the start of the meeting.

“Sloan never had a sad day in her life. Not one,” the relative wrote to Vincent. “A few bad moments will not define her last day of her seven years. She would never want your beaches to be as sad as I saw them in recent days. The beach was one of her favorite places to go. If there is a way to use this tragedy to ensure that people build sandcastles and not dig deep holes, we would like to encourage or even partner with you to bring joy back to the beach and prevent anyone else from getting hurt.”

Broward Sheriff’s Capt. William Wesolowski said at the meeting that the Homicide Unit is actively investigating Sloan’s death, but he could not answer questions specifically about the investigation.

Wesolowski said he was one of the first people to arrive on scene within a minute of the first 911 call. Maddox was in tears, only able to “wiggle his torso,” he said, but could not free himself. By the time first responders arrived, people had already been digging to try to get the children out.

“One of the first questions I asked is, ‘Where’s your sister?’ And Maddox pointed straight down, as in between his legs,” Wesolowski said.

Several 911 calls described a frantic scene of people digging, trying to rescue the girl who could no longer be seen under the sand. Sloan had no pulse when she was rescued from the hole, Sandra King, a spokesperson for Pompano Beach Fire Rescue, previously told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Wesolowski said he wanted to address “two misconceptions” — the size of the hole Sloan and Maddox were trapped in and who was digging the hole.

There were reports that the hole was 15-feet wide. He said the hole was no wider than 3 feet. Surveillance cameras recorded what happened that afternoon, he said, adding the footage will not yet be publicly released.

There were reports that someone saw a young man or an adult digging the hole. Wesolowski said there were two holes dug in the area, and the other one was no deeper than 2 feet and was a different hole from the one where Sloan and Maddox were buried.

He did not provide information about whether the children were seen alone or with adults in the surveillance video digging the hole that would collapse on them.

Whether Lauderdale-by-the-Sea should have lifeguards has been a topic of debate for the town commission since the 1980s. Whether the outcome of the discussion will be different since Sloan’s death remains to be seen.

Pompano Beach Fire Rescue currently patrols the beach twice per shift, according to a report attached to Tuesday’s meeting agenda. The Broward Sheriff’s Office also patrols, totaling just over 520 hours last year. Volunteers with the town’s Citizen Observer Patrol also monitored the beach for an additional 126 hours.

But there are seven access points to the beach on El Mar Drive, where the children were trapped, and two others farther north, and no lifeguards. Some residents who spoke at the meeting said emphatically it’s time that changes, while others voiced skepticism on whether it’s necessary and how it would be afforded.

Spiro Marchelos, Anglin’s Fishing Pier owner, said the town needs “real lifeguards,” particularly in the area where many tourists frequent, between the downtown area and the pier.

“What’s a life worth? We cannot do this anymore. We need real lifeguards, a line of defense,” he said. “Could it have saved the little girl Sloan? We don’t know, possibly. Possibly. My opinion is — I’m a taxpayer, I live in town, we can find the money. The money is there.”

Commissioner Theo Poulopoulos agreed. The father of his own 7-year-old girl said he hasn’t stopped thinking of Sloan and her family and wants to ensure nothing similar happens ever again.

Poulopoulos in a commission meeting just over a year ago voiced support for employing lifeguards when discussing contracting with Pompano Beach for fire rescue services. At Tuesday’s meeting, Poulopoulos said he feels guilty that he didn’t do more then.

Two full-time lifeguards who would work 8-hour days, seven days a week, would cost $200,000, according to a Feb. 14, 2023, agenda report on the fire department contract. The contract with Pompano Beach allows for the town to add ocean rescue services at any time during the contract and the compensation to be negotiated separately, the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting said.

“The cost is a few extra hundred thousands dollars a year. Let’s do it. Let’s find the money. Let’s make sure this gets done. I’m not sitting here saying I want to think about. I’m sitting here saying let’s do it,” Poulopoulos said, receiving applause from the audience.

Past discussions on hiring lifeguards were prompted by deadly drownings and near drownings from 1988 into the early 2000s. Officials throughout the years said the town couldn’t afford lifeguards.

In February 1988, a 60-year-old tourist died at the hospital after apparently trying to save two swimmers who were struggling in the water. In March that year, others had to be saved from the water during a period of intense rip currents.

In May 1988, a college student on Spring Break from Philadelphia nearly drowned at the town’s beach while caught in a rip current but was saved by a surfer. By about two weeks later, then-town commissioners voted not to hire lifeguards.

Similar incidents followed over the years, prompting the same discussions about hiring lifeguards. There were four drownings alone in 2008 and two other near-deaths, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported in 2009 and 2010.

A new Beach Safety Patrol made up of the town’s volunteer firefighters began patrolling the beach in 2008, and though a Fort Lauderdale lifeguard oversaw the training, they were not lifeguards but rather patrolled the beach on ATVs, the Sun Sentinel reported at the time.

Vincent voiced concerns about the potential “false sense of protection” that adding lifeguards to the beach could bring, which he believed could also cause more people to flock to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea’s sand from the town and western cities. He questioned if they do decide to have two lifeguards, which parts of the beach they’d decide to station them.

“Of course we could save a life. There’s no question. Could we have saved Sloan’s life? We don’t know that,” Vincent said.

A few residents who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting said they believed adding signs at the beach warning people not to dig holes would be sufficient and that lifeguards are not necessary.

Vice Mayor Edmund Malkoon fought back tears during his remarks. He noted that with the March 19 election, a new commission will be the ones to make a final decision.

“We have talked about lifeguards for many years and as a speaker said, you know, maybe this is a message. Maybe this is something that we need to now discuss again,” he said.

Vincent said he wants staff to do a “complete review” of the town’s current beach ordinances, the state and county regulations and of other beach cities in the county and recommend any changes to prevent future accidents to the commission.

The commission could adopt an ordinance to prohibit or regulate recreational digging, and the language could be added to current signs to warn people of the dangers, according to a report on ordinances attached to the agenda. The report said officials are currently gathering cost estimates for the signs.

Town Manager Linda Connors told the commission that the public information team is currently creating a public safety campaign to educate residents and visitors, which will include printed materials for hotels and vacation rentals, businesses, the visitor center and condo associations.


(Information from the Sun Sentinel archives was used in this report.)


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