Saturday, December 27, 2014

Family of drowned man wants beach closed

The drowning of a man who was swept out to sea from a notorious beach at the Jersey Shore could have been prevented, his family said, if the town had posted adequate warnings and prohibited access.

The family of George Bradley Smith filed suit Thursday alleging that negligence caused the Montgomery County man's death. The suit, filed in New Jersey Superior Court, names as defendants North Wildwood, Cape May County, and the State of New Jersey.

The suit claims the beach had a well-known "steep and unobservable drop-off at the area of the accident." It asks the court to immediately order the beach closed and seeks unspecified damages. The beach is an "unprotected" stretch of sand, meaning that there is no lifeguard monitoring the area.

Two years ago, Brad Smith, 54, of Horsham, his young daughter, and another father-daughter pair were strolling along the shoreline in ankle-deep water near Hereford Inlet in North Wildwood. It was about 5:30 p.m. on July 27.

As they walked in the surf near Second Street and Ocean Avenue, the sand gave way.

Scott Sunderland, Smith's best friend, recounted the event.

"The signs said 'No Swimming,' and we weren't, we were just walking," Sunderland said. "I took a step and dropped. All of a sudden, there was nothing under my feet."

Sunderland's daughter landed on his back and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.

"I just started swimming," Sunderland said. "It was 30 seconds before I realized how far from the shore I was."

With his daughter hanging on, Sunderland struggled against a vicious undertow. When he finally touched sand, he fought to gain his footing: "It was almost like I was climbing to get onto the beach."

Meanwhile, Smith and his daughter had been swept by the current into the inlet. A strong swimmer, Smith reached his daughter and kept her head above water. A boy on a ski craft spotted them, pulled the girl onto his water craft, and returned her to dry land.

Minutes later, Smith slipped under the surface. His body would not be found for three days.

The unprotected inlet beach has long had a reputation for being dangerous, according to the Smith family's attorney, Paul D'Amato of Egg Harbor, N.J.

Seven people drowned there over a nine-year period, according to D'Amato.

In a recorded interview that investigators conducted, a lieutenant on the North Wildwood Beach Patrol said the Hereford Inlet beach was "anything but safe to swim" and predicted drownings would happen again.

According to D'Amato, the lieutenant said that "closure, not simply posting warning signs, was necessary, but would not happen due to concerns about the economic impact on local commercial businesses, primarily oceanfront bars."

In a statement, North Wildwood Mayor Patrick T. Rosenello said he could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

"The City of North Wildwood takes its beach protection responsibilities quite seriously," Rosenello said. "In fact, there has never been a drowning incident at a protected beach in the City of North Wildwood in its 100-plus years of existence."

D'Amato said his efforts to discover if there had been any drownings at the inlet beach since Smith's had been stonewalled by local authorities.

At a morning news conference in Egg Harbor Township, Smith's widow said she had been shocked to learn of the beach's dangerous reputation, which, according to local law enforcement officials she spoke to, was well known by the local population.

"Why weren't we - or others - warned before we went to North Wildwood on a family vacation for the first time?" she said. "Why did we have to read news accounts, quoting local authorities, talking about unsafe conditions, all after Brad's death?"

She said that while her husband was missing, police would come by the house on the Marina where they were staying every day and tell them of others who had been saved from drowning in the same area.

"We don't want this to happen to another family," she said, "and we wish that someone that knew of this dangerous area would have done what was right so that we would have never lost Brad in the first place."

Contact Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or Follow @samwoodiii on Twitter.

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