Three U.S. teenagers drowned and their teacher remains missing after they were pulled out to sea by dangerous currents Saturday at Palo Seco Beach, on the central Pacific coast.
The teens – Danielle Tongier, 18,Andrew Harpstrite, 17, and Jessica Pierce, 17 – were among 10 former and current students from Labette County High School, in Altamonte, Kansas, who had saved their money all year to finance a language-immersion trip to Costa Rica with their beloved Spanish teacher Brett Carlson, 26.
Palo Seco Beach is on a strip of central Pacific coastline in the area of Parrita, between the popular beach towns of Jacó and Quepos.
According to the Costa Rican National Association of Lifeguards, this area has claimed seven lives this year alone – including the three students who drowned Saturday.
While families and friends mourn the deaths of these students and the search continues for their teacher, some are asking whether these deaths could have been prevented.
“When we talk of the area of Parrita specifically we are talking about a series of beaches with an important level of danger,” lifeguard association president Luis Hidalgo said in a statement Monday. “For that reason, our association has characterized that series of beaches on the central Pacific as unfit for swimming.”
According to Hidalgo, none of the beaches in the area has lifeguards or flags marking safe and unsafe beaches. Hidalgo has called for more government investment in beach safety, criticizing the lack of lifeguards, signs and information on the dangers of Costa Rica’s beaches.
A recent Tico Times investigation found that the Costa Rican government does not employ a single lifeguard throughout the country, leaving that task up to local tourism chambers, communities and the Red Cross. However, many important beaches are left unattended (TT, Feb. 17).
Hidalgo told The Tico Times Tuesday that he met with the mayor of Parrita in 2004 after three Costa Rican high school students drowned at a nearby beach to stress the importance of improved safety measures in the area. However, nothing has been done.
“We call on the authorities in our government, principally the Costa Rican
Tourism Institute and the National Chamber of Tourism, to analyze this regrettable situation and foster healthy policies for the well being of national tourism,” Hidalgo said in his statement, adding that 58 people have drowned in Costa Rica so far this year.
Sally María Delgado, the manager of La Isla hotel where the students were staying, as a part of a larger group of 48 tourists, said that all the tourists staying at the hotel were warned that the beach was especially dangerous due to particularly stormy weather. Last weekend, the National Emergency Commission had extended a preventive, green alert throughout the country because of heavy rains related to tropical storm Alberto forming in the Gulf of Mexico.
Delgado said representatives from the various tourist groups were warned that the ocean was particularly dangerous, but could not confirm whether Carlson, or someone else from the Labette County students’ group, was informed. However, she said, all tourists were warned as part of their welcome to the hotel – and again as a group when they gathered for lunch – to “take extreme caution” when entering the ocean.
“We were told that we could go to the beach as long as we were careful,” said Kristy Scheuer, 19, in an e-mail to The Tico Times.
Scheuer, who graduated in 2005 from Labette County, was at the beach Saturday.
“I never heard anything about the conditions being dangerous,” Scheuer wrote. “I don’t remember the hotel manager talking to us at all. Our tour director had talked to us about the dangers of the ocean in general, but that was all.”
Scheuer also was in the water and had to be rescued from the currents. She recounted her story in an e-mail to The Tico Times Monday:
“We all went to the beach at about 2 p.m. At one point it started raining hard and that’s when we were a good ways out in the ocean. At about 5 p.m. Brett Carlson, our teacher, told us it was time to come in and he swam back to the beach. I noticed that most of the kids couldn’t hear him so I yelled back at them. The response I got was ‘We can’t.’
I told them to swim in with the waves and then attempted to take my own advice. Then I realized that I couldn’t. I could no longer reach the ground and the waves were getting bigger.
“I started yelling for help. I just kept yelling and I saw Brett jump back in the water to help us. Jessica Pierce also heard that we needed help so she ran down from the hotel to help since she’s a lifeguard. Brett swam to me and held me above the water because I could no longer keep myself up. But the waves kept hitting us and we got separated. For some reason he got caught in a current that took him farther out to sea and I got moved toward the shore. I kept looking back at him; he was trying his hardest to swim forward. . .
“I just kept swimming and not moving anywhere. I saw the people on the beach but I couldn’t get any closer. I kept getting pulled under by the waves.
Just when I knew I couldn’t keep swimming anymore, B.J. King, a student from Tipton, Iowa, was by my side, lifting me above water. I told him I couldn’t go any further and he helped me to shallower water and went out to help someone else.”
The Red Cross recovered the body of Tongier that same evening and Harpstrite the following morning. Massive search efforts by more than 60 officials from the Red Cross, Public Security Ministry, Civil Aviation and the Costa Rican Coast Guard resulted in the discovery Tuesday of Pierce’s body, 14 nautical miles off the coast.
At press time, Carlson was still missing.
The bodies of the three students were taken to the Judicial Morgue to be sent home to Kansas. A memorial service in Altamonte was planned for today, according to the Kansas daily The Wichita Eagle.