A teenage lifeguard was killed and at least seven other people were injured in a lightning strike on a beach in New Jersey on Monday.
Rescuer Keith Pinto, 19, of Toms River, New Jersey, was fatally injured by lightning strike at White Sands Beach in South Seaside Park around 4:35 p.m., the Berkeley Township Police Department said in a statement. Mr Pinto died of his injuries on the beach, while the other victims, including four rescuers, were treated at nearby hospitals, the department said.
Mr. Pinto had worked as a lifeguard for four years, according to Debbie Winogracki, communications director for the Township of Berkeley.
Ms. Winogracki remembered him as a valued member of the community who took his job seriously.
“He was just a nice kid – I call him a kid, but he was a young man,” she said. “He gave off the leadership qualities you look for in a person. “
Mr. Pinto was a student at Ocean County College in Toms River, according to his Facebook profile. He was a former track athlete who graduated from Toms River High School North last year, a school district spokesperson said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, a memorial for Mr Pinto had formed on the beach, with several bouquets and T-shirts draped over a lifeguard stand resting on its side in the sand. People gathered in front of the memorial, crying and hugging each other tightly. A candlelight vigil was scheduled for later that evening, according to a GoFundMe page to raise funds for Mr Pinto’s family.
Monday had started off beautiful and clear, with no visible signs of a storm, according to beach goers who were there that afternoon. Christine Gailey-Glenn, 51, sat on the beach with her husband, son and cousin about 200 feet from the lifeguard station. Ms Gailey-Glenn’s family gathered this weekend to celebrate her sister’s 60th birthday.
At around 4 p.m., the family said, they started to see dark clouds forming and one of Ms Gailey-Glenn’s sisters heard thunder. The family had just started packing their things to go inside when lightning suddenly struck.
“It was like a bomb,” Ms. Gailey-Glenn said. “I felt this excruciating pain in my head and crackles.”
Ms Gailey-Glenn said she fell to her knees and was unconscious for several seconds. When she came to her senses, her husband was screaming at them to leave, she said. Her son, sister and cousin had all been affected by what police described as residual lightning, electrical energy that propagates outward from a direct lightning strike.
“I felt the electricity flowing through my legs like a current,” said Traci Zalinski, 50, cousin of Ms Gailey-Glenn.
Ms Gailey-Glenn’s son was lying on a blanket when the strike struck and could barely walk afterward, she said. As she and her husband were helping their son off the beach, she turned and saw people screaming and running towards the lifeguard station, where another lifeguard was performing chest compressions on Mr Pinto.
Berkeley Township Mayor Carmen Amato called the day “tragic” and “heartbreaking” for the Jersey Shore.
“This youngster was there every day to protect the lives of others,” Amato said in a statement. “Our lifeguard teams, like so many others along the shore, develop special bonds with our community throughout the summer, which makes this loss even more significant.”
Beaches in the Township of Berkeley will be closed to swimming until Friday, police say, but will remain open to bathers. Crisis counselors are also available to beach employees.
Ahead of Monday’s lightning strike, Ms Gailey-Glenn and Ms Zalinski said they ignored storm warnings on the beach – a decision they said they would never make again.
The cousins still have some lingering anxiety, but they said they were determined to return to the beach on Tuesday to see the lifeguard stand and participate in Mr Pinto’s memorial.
“This is where I need to be today,” Ms. Gailey-Glenn said. “Our hearts go out to Keith’s family and we pray for them.”
Tracey Tully contributed reports. Susan campbell beachy contributed research.