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Horseshoe Beach rescuer describes scene of tragedy

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Packed: Horseshoe Bay Beach is a magnet to visitors, but can be dangerous for swimmers (File photograph)

The death of a holidaymaker while trying to save a child struggling in the waters off Horseshoe Bay could have been avoided had lifeguards been on duty, it has been claimed.

A witness said more lives might have been lost in the tragedy had it not been for the selfless actions of a Bermudian woman who pulled other struggling swimmers free from dangerous rip tides at the popular South Shore beach.

The incident has prompted the Government to review its lifeguard policy.

Lifeguards at present are employed from the beginning of May, even though visitors crowd public beaches from the end of March when cruise ship season begins.

Hyon Duk Shin’s death last month also prompted US authorities to warn its citizens that a lack of lifeguards could make swimming hazardous.

Mr Duk Shin, 49, an American civil engineer from Berwyn, Pennsylvania, was visiting the island with his wife and two young sons when tragedy struck on March 27.

The family had arrived on the Norwegian Getaway cruise ship and were spending a day at Bermuda’s iconic beauty spot with hundreds of other passengers.

According to eyewitness reports, Mr Shin swam towards a young child struggling in high waves before getting into difficulties himself. He died in the water before emergency services arrived, and despite the efforts of Bermudian Ali Watlington.

Ms Watlington — a trained lifeguard — had stopped at an overlook on South Road with a bird’s-eye view of the commotion unfolding below.

She decided to act after realising that swimmers were caught up in dangerous rip currents.

Selfless: Hyon Duk Shin, pictured with his two sons (Photograph provided)

She described it in an April 5 letter to Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the public works minister, whose responsibilities include parks and lifeguards.

Ms Watlington, 45, wrote: “I saw a strange scene. There were two very distinct rip currents, with about ten people in them, and a large crowd all gathered at the west end of the beach.

“I could also see a black shape floating around the west headland. I did not observe anyone running or anything to suggest that there was a problem but the rip currents concerned me and I decided to go down to the beach to see what was happening.”

Ms Watlington, who works as an events manager, said that by the time she arrived, most people were out of the water but that “the general atmosphere was unusual”.

“There were over 200 people in the crowd, all staring at the water, very quietly. There was a young girl crying with her family around her. They were clearly in shock.

“I asked if she’d been caught in the rip and they said ‘yes’, so I advised that they call an ambulance and get her checked out immediately, to ensure no secondary drowning or other related symptoms.”

Ms Watlington spoke to a beach attendant who told her someone was in trouble but that lifeguards were not on duty and no one appeared to be helping.

She said: “I immediately looked for flotation but there was none. Someone then spotted a man in the water with a rescue buoy and I swam out to him. I asked if he was a lifeguard and he said ‘no’, that he was just trying to help. He appeared to be in mild shock, so I told him that it wasn’t safe and to return to the beach immediately.

Burch: we have a shortage of lifeguards

The Government is to conduct a review of its lifeguard policy after Hyon Duk Shin’s death last month – and has acknowledged that manpower levels need to be stepped up and extended.

Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the Minister of Public Works, warned that efforts to recruit more lifeguards were hampered by a shortage of local talent.

The minister was responding to a plea by Ali Watlington — the woman who fought bravely to save Mr Duk Shin’s life — for stronger safety measures to be enforced at the island’s public beaches.

In a letter to the minister dated April 5, Ms Watlington said that the incident had been “extremely traumatic” for tourists at the beach.

She added: “This man’s death demonstrates the severe consequences of not having trained professionals readily available to respond to emergencies. Public beaches are not only integral to our community’s identity, but also serve as a cornerstone of responsible tourism.

“We attract visitors with our pink sand beaches and turquoise waters, but we are not prioritising their safety and wellbeing. Not investing in our primary front line, our lifeguards and park rangers, will cost us more in the long run. Bermuda very nearly had three drownings in under an hour and this would have attracted widespread news attention.

“Colonel Burch, I urge you to prioritise the allocation of resources towards extending the lifeguard and park ranger patrols on our public beaches, at least from March 1 until November 30, particularly when the cruise ships are in.

“This proactive approach will not only save lives but also enhance the overall experience for beachgoers and demonstrate our dedication to providing a welcoming and secure environment for tourists and locals alike.”

Ms Watlington’s concerns were echoed by tourist Yiota Loukas, a visitor from New York, who witnessed the tragedy at Horseshoe Bay.

Ms Loukas said: “Shockingly, there were no lifeguards on the beach that day.

“Apparently, there was not a single sign at the beach to warn the visitors about rip currents, undertows, or tides. The locals apparently know their beaches, but the visitors do not.”

She said she felt compelled after the “horrible” experience to warn friends, family and travel blog followers about Horseshoe Bay Beach.

“I researched it further and found that there have been several drownings at this beach, mostly cruise passengers. I do not want to see this happening to anyone ever again.

“I was under the impression that Bermuda, being one of the top per capita incomes of the world, could afford a few beach lifeguards or a jet ski for emergencies.

“We hope that the Bermuda Government takes the appropriate course of action to ensure this doesn’t repeat, especially for oblivious visitors who aren’t aware of the undertow dangers.”

US authorities have also expressed concern.

In a missive that could be damaging to the island’s tourism industry, the US Consulate published the following message on its website, warning Americans of potential danger.

It read: “There is currently no lifeguard coverage on Bermuda beaches. Rip tides, particularly on South Shore beaches, can be dangerous. Take all precautions.

“Lifeguards are scheduled to be on duty May 1 through October 31 at Horseshoe Bay Beach, and on duty May 24 through Labour Day on John Smith’s Bay Beach, Clearwater Beach, and Turtle Beach.”

It said that a longer cruise season meant the island’s Government was looking into boosting lifeguard services.

“However, there will be no lifeguards deployed before May 1 this year at Horseshoe Bay Beach or before May 24 at John Smith’s Bay Beach, Clearwater Beach, or Turtle Beach.”

In a reply on Wednesday to Ms Watlington’s letter Colonel Burch sympathised with her “devastating experience”.

He said lifeguard coverage was on a seasonal basis, from May 1 to October 31, which for several years had mirrored the cruise season.

“In present times, that season has expanded so that ships arrive earlier than May 1 and later than October 31.

“As such, we are exploring expanding the service to better align with the cruise season.

“Unfortunately, as you know, there is a severe shortage of lifeguards locally and the majority of those recruited for the summer season are guest workers.”

“I left him with the flotation as I now realised what the black shape was and that I likely wouldn’t be dealing with a rescue but instead a body recovery.

“I swam around the western headland and there was a young man on a surfboard by the unresponsive man who was still face down. I flipped the man over, managed to get him on to the surfboard and with the aid of a second young man, we eventually got him to the beach.

“Upon reaching the shore, I was told that another man was signalling for help. I instructed a visitor who identified herself as a nurse to begin compressions on the first patient and went back for the second man using a child’s foam surfboard.

“He was panicking and exhausted and it took a few minutes to calm him down before I began the challenging process of swimming him in.”

Back on land, she saw police and paramedics caring for the first two patients but suspected that “too much time had passed to revive the first man”.

Ms Watlington’s bravery was praised by a visitor at the beach.

Yiota Loukas, another Norwegian Getaway passenger, described the incident as “horrific”.

Speaking from her home in New York last night, Ms Loukas told The Royal Gazette: “Ali is an absolute hero. She was the only person who attempted to rescue the man. She was fighting and struggling for 30 minutes or more, using a surfing board and was able to eventually retrieve the body.

“What she did was amazing. Everybody was standing around in shock. We couldn’t do anything. But Ali was fighting, fighting, fighting.

“My own husband, a doctor and a very strong swimmer, had been in the water 30 minutes earlier. It could have been him.”

Ms Loukas described onlookers, including a young girl, in tears.

She said: "I found out later that the little girl was crying for her sibling who was having difficulty in the water and apparently was saved by the man who drowned.

“This is a tragedy — it’s tragic because it did not need to happen.”

Victim demonstrated ‘extraordinary courage and selflessness’

The man who sacrificed his life in an effort to save a drowning girl on Horseshoe Bay last month has been heralded a hero by family and friends.

Hyon Duk Shin, a father of two from Pennsylvania, paid the ultimate price after running into rip tide waters in an effort to rescue the child before coming into difficulties himself.

In a GoFundMe page, Mr Duk Shun was described as a man who “demonstrated extraordinary courage and selflessness when he saw a child in distress in the water”.

The page, which has now raised $130,000 was set up by Colleen Rilling, who wrote: “On March 27, 2024, while on vacation with his family, Duk demonstrated extraordinary courage and selflessness when he saw a child in distress in the water.

“As you would expect of Duk, he did not hesitate for a moment to go in to attempt to save this child that was drowning. Tragically, Duk lost his life while trying to save someone else's child.

“He leaves behind a grieving wife, and two young boys aged 7 and 9 who will for ever miss their loving husband and father. Their loss is immeasurable and there are no words that can ease their sorrow.”

One commentator wrote: “I was there that day on the beach! I have never seen such a selfless act. He was the true definition of a hero.”

Another said: “The kind of sacrifice is extraordinary. What a beautiful soul! May God bless you and your family.”

Mr Duk Shin had been working as a senior quality engineer with Herbert, Rowland, and Grubic, Inc. in King of Prussia, PA.

A services will be held at the Alleva Funeral Home in Paoli on Saturday, April 20.

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Published April 20, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated April 22, 2024 at 8:03 am)

Horseshoe Beach rescuer describes scene of tragedy

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