Bouquets in swim fins sat on the plastic chairs outside the entrance to the Newport Beach lifeguard headquarters Monday morning in memory of lifeguard Ben Carlson, who died while rescuing a distressed swimmer over the weekend.
Carlson, a 15-year lifeguard, jumped into the water from a rescue boat that had responded to save a swimmer who was struggling in 6- to 8-foot waves off the Balboa Peninsula near 16th Street about 5 p.m. Sunday, according to news release issued by the city.
After Carlson, 32, reached the man, they were both hit by a large wave. While the swimmer managed to make his way back to shore, Carlson disappeared in 12-foot surf.
Other lifeguards attempted to rescue Carlson, but they were unable to find him in the turbulent water, Newport Beach Fire Department Chief Scott Poster said at a news conference.
After a three-hour search that included a helicopter, 25 people in the water and at least 30 personnel supporting from the shore, rescuers found Carlson and pulled him onto the Newport Pier.
Paramedics took Carlson to Hoag Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 8:15 p.m., according to the Orange County coroner's office.
The Orange County coroner will conduct an autopsy this week to determine the official cause of death.
The lifeguard was also a longtime bartender and had worked as the bar and beverage director for Wahoo's Fish Taco since 2011.
Eric Palafox, the assistant manager at the chain's Newport Beach location, remembers Carlson as a great leader with a happy outlook on life.
"He was always so positive, trying to motivate our team and improve sales," Palafox said. "He always came up with great ideas to improve our bar."
Carlson was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on July 2, 1982. He graduated from Etiwanda High School near Rancho Cucamonga in 2000. He earned a degree in psychology from UC Irvine in 2005, school officials said.
During his high school and college years, Carlson was an active member of the swim and water polo teams.
"Any time we lose someone from the Etiwanda family, it's just tragic," Principal Don Jaramillo said, "especially when they're so young."
The death came during one of the busiest weekends of the year for Newport Beach lifeguards. There was a near-drowning earlier Sunday when a swimmer was pulled away by strong rip currents, police said.
Still, high temperatures and clear skies brought swimmers back to the beach Monday morning. Many were unaware of the tragic event that had transpired hours earlier.
However, for lifeguards and locals, the day was filled with mourning for Carlson.
Just before noon, three lifeguard rescue boats drove by the pier with flags at half mast in Carlson's honor. A few local stores remained closed, with signs posted calling him a "bro lifeguard."
Poster described Carlson as a dedicated lifeguard who would "give the shirt off his back at any time."
"It's just an utter tragedy to lose a man of that caliber in the water today," Poster said.