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Questions raised about lifeguards in drowning Family members doubt whether the response was quick enough

Bethany Rose Morgan went for a swim at Woodlawn Beach last week and drowned beneath Lake Erie's waves.

Some people say it was just a tragic accident.

Others, however, say the three lifeguards on the beach didn't act quickly -- that only one lifeguard went into the water and that wasn't until the victim's sister had already found her and was dragging her to shore.

Moreover, family members maintain that a potentially critical piece of lifesaving equipment was apparently missing from a first-aid bag on the beach.

The 10-year-old East Aurora girl died two days after being pulled from the water.

Official reports suggest Bethany -- in a marked swimming area -- was felled by a wave and failed to resurface shortly before 3:45 p.m. July 16.

Her older sister, Katie, found her and, with the help of a lifeguard, dragged her from the water.

She was not breathing and only registered a faint pulse after she was brought to shore. A lifeguard began cardiopulmonary resuscitation, continued by a Rural/Metro Medical Services paramedic as Bethany was driven to Mercy Hospital.

Officials from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation confirmed the information this week and would only say that an "investigation is under way." The lifeguards have since returned to work, and no one has been reprimanded.

"Obviously, we are doing a very thorough investigation," said Eileen Larrabee, state parks spokeswoman. "We are talking to people who were there, like family members and employees."

Larrabee noted that on July 16 there were three lifeguards on duty -- one more than is required. The state requires lifeguards to be at least 16 and certified in six American Red Cross courses, including CPR and lifeguard training.

Some who were at the beach, however, question whether the lifeguards worked quickly enough and did all they could to find Bethany during the minutes she disappeared in the water.

A Cheektowaga woman, who asked not to be identified, was at the beach with her four children and became aware something was wrong when a female lifeguard announced over a bullhorn, "Bethany, please report to the white lifeguard station."

That announcement was prompted by a visit from Marilyn Ashlin, Bethany's aunt.

"I told the young woman lifeguard there that I had lost sight of a child and that she was out at one of the buoys," Ashlin said. The deepest part of the swimming area is estimated to be about 3 1/2 feet. Bethany was just shy of 5 feet tall.

>Having fun, then gone

Ashlin said she, Bethany, 12-year-old Katie and their brother, Elliot, 7, were in the water jumping into "small swells" and having fun. Ashlin and Katie left the water. In the minute it took them to walk back to their towel, Bethany disappeared.

"The lifeguard advised me to go and look for Bethany and if I didn't find her to come back and let her know," Ashlin said. "It was not the reaction that I expected. I definitely expected her to get up and jump into the water."

The lifeguard repeated the plea for Bethany over her bullhorn about four times, every 20 to 30 seconds, according witnesses. She then got off her station at the southern end of the swimming area and walked toward two other lifeguards at the other end of the swimming area.

During that time, Marilyn Ashlin, the aunt who took Bethany to the beach that day, was scanning the lake for Bethany and then entered the water with Katie to search for her.

Katie, who waded in the knee-deep water a few feet ahead of Ashlin, shrieked as she found Bethany floating face down and then frantically dragged her the 8 feet or so to shore. Bethany was recovered directly in front of the lifeguard perch on the northern end of the swimming area where the two lifeguards were stationed, the witness said.

"She was limp and she was slippery," Ashlin said. "Katie brought her in, then the lifeguard came and took her from us."

A male lifeguard helped pull her ashore. Ashlin said they began to use some sort of "a bulb" device on Bethany.

*Missing respirator?

"She spit up some water, and she had a slight pulse," Ashlin said.

At that point, Ashlin said, one of the people on the beach treating Bethany -- she couldn't remember if it was a lifeguard -- asked for an "ambu bag."

"They didn't have it," she said.

The bag, she was later told by authorities, is an emergency respirator. The device, equipped with a rubber bulb and an attached breathing tube, provides air to the victim, Ashlin said.

Witnesses recall a lifeguard administering CPR on the beach before the paramedics arrived.

"People were just a wreck, really," the witness said. "Three or four people around us were calling 911 on their cell phones right away."

When Bethany's mother, Suzanne Morgan, first got the call about the accident, she couldn't believe it. She was not at the beach that day.

"It was just impossible she'd drowned, it just couldn't be," Morgan said. "Bethany is a swimmer. She'd been in the water since she was a little girl. She swam in San Francisco Bay."

Morgan rushed to Mercy Hospital.

"In the emergency room, they were told to stop giving her CPR. I can still see the doctor. He had a watch on his left arm and he said, 'I'm calling her at 5:02.' Then he turned to me and said, 'I'm so very sorry.' "

"I thought, 'No way, she's not going,' " Morgan said.

But then, they found a slight pulse.

>A two-day bedside vigil

Bethany was transported to Women and Children's Hospital, where her mother kept vigil at her bedside for two days.

"They told me from the beginning she was 'very, very sick and she could have a heart attack at any time,' " Morgan said. "They didn't expect her to live, but I was trying to see beyond that."

Bethany died July 18.

Morgan says she just doesn't have enough information to know whether the emergency at the beach could have been handled better.

"I just don't know what happened," Morgan said. "I welcome anyone to call and tell us anything."

Bethany, who would have turned 11 on Aug. 8, was laid to rest Thursday in Oakwood Cemetery, East Aurora.

e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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