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Be wary of strong undertow at beach resorts

/ 02:38 AM September 05, 2011

One of the first things that new Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez should do is to ensure the safety of tourists in beach resorts. There have been cases of vacationers drowning offshore within beach resorts. The latest victim was a mother of two who drowned in a beach resort in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. If incidents like this get out in the international press, we can say goodbye to tourism. It is bad enough that news reports about lawlessness in some Mindanao provinces—which are very attractive to Westerners because of the many tiny islets with white sand beaches and swaying palms scattered in the blue waters—have dampened the desire of tourists to come here. News of such drowning incidents will definitely scare off tourists—open skies or not.

The unkindest cut to the family of the drowning victim in Palawan is that the resort refuses to acknowledge its responsibility in the accident. The Department of Tourism has investigated the incident and reported to Mayor Edward Hagedorn of Puerto Princesa that the 5-star Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa, which had just opened, “was negligent in providing the necessary precautionary measures to ensure the safety of its guests.”

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Here is what happened as related by the family of the drowning victim, Ma. Cecily de Guzman, a pharmacist:

Sometime in October 2010, members of the Azores and Macalintal families of Makati agreed to hold a family reunion sometime in December 2010. After family consultations, they agreed to have the reunion in Puerto Princesa on Dec. 21-23, 2010.

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A total of 24 persons—13 adults and 11 children—decided to join the trip. Among them were Cecily with her two young sons (Miguel Alfonso, 14, and Gabriel Nicolo, 15) and her mother, Dr. Consuelo Azores.

They chose the Asturias Hotel for the first day and the Sabtang Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa for the second day.

The group checked in at the Sheridan Resort on Dec. 22. After breakfast on Dec. 23, almost everyone wanted to go to the beach as the sea and small waves looked so inviting.

On their way to the beach, according to the family, nobody informed them—neither were there sufficient warning signs—about the dangerous and strong undertow of the beach waters.

Some of the members of the group stayed on the shore while others went for a swim in the shallow waters.

While casually talking and swimming, those who had gone offshore all felt a strong undercurrent pulling them away to deeper waters. They all tried to fight the current and swim back to the shore, but the current was too strong. After a few minutes, they were already far from each other, far from the shore, in deep waters.

They frantically yelled and signaled for help. Fortunately another family member, Vladimir Varias, who was on the shore, heard the shouts and signals for help. He shouted for help as well. Two men from the area went into the waters and gave Joseph Macalintal and Corina Macalintal a floater. Romeo Macalintal helped in rescuing his nephews, Gabriel Nicolo and Matthew Macalintal by pushing them toward shore. Two other adults pulled them to safety.

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Romeo also swam toward his daughter Samantha and brought her to shore. Later, Joseph and Corina drifted near Dr. Vincent Macalintal who grabbed the rope tied to their floaters and pulled them to shore.

Dr. Concepcion Varias signaled the rescuers to pick up Miguel Alfonso who was already very far. A passing boat picked him up.

But Cecily was missing. Then they saw the limp body of a woman being pulled into one of the rescuing boats. Suspecting that it was her sister, Doctor Varias ran to her hotel room to get the face mask for resuscitation which she had brought along in case of an emergency. Another doctor, Dr. Rouel Azores, a brother, also ran toward the boat.

The limp body was indeed Cecily’s. Doctor Varias immediately gave her oxygen through the face mask and Doctor Azores gave her CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) by pumping her chest with his hands.

An ambu bag and an oxygen canister were given to Doctor Azores but the latter’s hose wouldn’t fit the mask.

After about 10 minutes, an ambulance arrived to take the victim to the nearest hospital—which was an hour-and-half away. In the ambulance, three doctors, all relatives, tried to revive Cecily—in vain because there were no first aid equipment and medicines available.

Many years ago, a nephew of mine drowned in similar circumstances at a new beach resort in Morong, Bataan, leaving his wife and young son behind. They were playing in waist-deep water when they were pulled away by a strong undertow. By the time a banca was launched to rescue him, he was already far away. He was rescued, unconscious but still alive. He never regained consciousness. He lingered for many days on life support but he eventually died.

Our resort owners, tourism people, and the tourists themselves should realize that there are many beaches, especially those facing the open sea, with strong undertows. These undertows can very quickly pull swimmers in shallow waters to deeper waters. Years ago, there were reports of vacationers drowning in Lingayen Gulf.

When I was vacationing with friends in Ilocos Sur, we were playing in waist-deep water, when I felt the sand under my feet being sucked away. I tried to walk back to shore but the sand continued to be pulled away. I swam back as fast and as hard as I could. A close call.

Remember when the tide is going out, the  current flows strongly away from the beach. Don’t venture out at this time. Resorts should warn their guests about this danger and should have lifeguards and boats ready to rescue stricken guests.

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TAGS: Beach Resorts, DoT, Public Safety, Ramon Jimenez, Tourism, travel
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