A vacation to Playa Tamarindo, in Costa Rica’s northwestern province of Guanacaste, turned tragic for a group of U.S. tourists when the ocean claimed Matt McParland.
Part of the tragedy, they say, lies in the lack of lifeguards, lifesaving equipment and signs to caution bathers at the popular but treacherous Tamarindo beach.
McParland, of the Chicago area, went for a swim on Friday in front of Hotel Tamarindo Diria with Ken and Khristy Otto, said McParland’s friends, part of a group of chiropractors on their annual trip abroad.
“Big and built like a linebacker,” according to one friend, McParland expressed some fear of the looks of the vast Pacific.
“Matt brought up, ‘What happens if I get caught in a riptide?’” said Ken’s wife Khristy in a phone interview with The Tico Times.
“My husband, who’s had some training in water safety, said, ‘Just don’t panic. You swim parallel with the shoreline and if you get too tired, float on your back until you get some strength.”
He was unable to follow the instructions when “a huge set came in, knocked them both down, and waves just kept breaking on them,” according to friend and Tamarindo resident Bruce McKillican.
McParland, who friends said is about 40, panicked, witnesses said.
“This look of horror came over his face, and he said ‘Guys, I’m getting pulled out, help me,’” said Otto, who was standing in the water closer to the shore.
Otto said she rushed back to shore, screaming for help. Hotel security brought out a raft and members of the traveling group rowed and swam out to retrieve McParland.
“By the time that they got to Matt, it was not looking good,” Otto said.
Once they got to shore, the chiropractors, also trained in CPR, began to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and compressions to the chest. Several witnesses concur that color began to return to McParland’s face.
Otto said that at least 30 minutes passed until the paramedics arrived, although she admitted it was hard to maintain a clear notion of time.
Luis Carlos Araya, paramedic and ambulance driver for the private emergency response company Emergencias 2000, described what he saw.
“When we got there (Matt) was already lying on the sand,” said Araya. “We started doing CPR and he didn’t respond. He had died. There was nothing more that could be done.”
Here’s where the stories diverge. Otto said that when the three-person emergency team arrived, they tried to administer an automated external defibrillator (AED), a machine that can jolt the body
back to life – but it was out of batteries. “I’ve been around (AEDs) enough to know that the body’s going to jump,” she said. “There was no shock, no charge, nothing.
The battery was too low.”
She said the medics didn’t seem confident in the next step. “They just looked at each other like ‘Oh, crap.What now?’”
The paramedic denied the accusation, saying his crew, under the direction of a medical doctor, didn’t intend on using the AED because “everyone was soaking wet. It would have been very dangerous to create an electrical charge then.”
The accident highlights a major complaint among Tamarindo residents and tourists alike: On the beach, there are no lifeguards or lifesaving devices to be found.
“The hotel has no lifeguards, just an abandoned tower. It’s been a long point of contention for residents here,” said McKillican.
Back in Wisconsin after her horrific holiday, Otto said, “I guess if there’s anything good that comes out of this, I sure pray that some action gets taken so that this couldn’t happen again.”