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Safety concerns linger after beach accident

From the print edition

By Suzanna Lourie | Special to The Tico Times 

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – For Eduardo Sánchez, 53, of Querétaro, Mexico, July 29 seemed like any other Sunday on a much-needed Costa Rican vacation. Enjoying an afternoon siesta on Tamarindo Beach, the last thing he could have expected was to be driven over by a Toyota pickup truck. 

“I heard a crumpling noise,” said Tamarindo resident Thornton Cohen. “I looked left and saw a guy roll out from under the back wheels of a gray Toyota truck.”

Immediately, Thornton and another bystander ran to help put Sánchez in a stabilized position while onlookers quickly dialed local police and emergency medical responders. 

The events that followed the gruesome accident reignited conversation about two beach-safety issues that plague Tamarindo and other isolated towns in the northwestern Guanacaste province: untimely medical care and lack of law enforcement regarding vehicles on the beach.

Sánchez, now in stable condition at San José’s Hospital México, had been traveling with his son, Iván, 22, when they arrived in Tamarindo – the third destination on a cross-country tour coordinated through a Costa Rican travel agency.

An agency representative echoed community concerns: “We’re very worried. He [Sánchez] was on the beach, and it’s not acceptable,” she said. “Cars are prohibited, and it’s very dangerous, so we need to make an announcement.” 

Officers from the local National Police and Tourist Police could not confirm the exact time police responded to the scene of the accident, but witnesses say it took at least 20 minutes for the first patrol car to arrive.

Tourist Police Officer José Martínez confirmed that cars and motorcycles are prohibited on the beach.

While it makes sense for tourists not to worry about being crushed while tanning, local laws remain hazy in the Tamarindo community.

When Iván Sánchez saw his father in extreme pain on the sand, his first response was not fear, but anger.  

“I was just like, ‘What the [expletive]?’” he said. “Cars are not supposed to be on the beach, and I did not find [police] to be helpful. They didn’t even go to him [Eduardo Sánchez], they just called the ambulance and took information from the guy who hit him.”

That “guy” was Argentine-born Luis Kipershmit, 67, who operates one of Tamarindo’s kayak, snorkeling and adventure tour companies – one of many tourism companies that load and unload supplies on the beach daily.

“It’s illegal to drive on the beach, but it’s legal to come and drop the gasoline, food and these things for the boats,” Kipershmit said. “I’m not blaming anyone, but you see cars driving to load and unload the boats here every day. This was a freak accident.”

Steve Quinn, who owns El Pescador, the beachfront restaurant adjacent to the parking lot where Kipershmit drove onto the sand, has seen close calls in that spot before. Once a car drove onto the sand with such speed, he said, it had to swerve to narrowly miss two kids playing in the sand.

Quinn also understands tour companies need to somehow get fuel and supplies down to the water. 

Martínez did not mention any exceptions to the law, but even if a legal loophole exists, police who patrol the beach in Tamarindo don’t appear to be doing much to enforce the rules. 

Kipershmit said he feels terrible about the accident and has cooperated fully with police. He said he also feels frustrated with another common issue – the lag in medical response time. 

After realizing his tires rolled across Sánchez’s ribs, Kipershmit obtained the victim’s consent to find a doctor, and called 911. When no one answered, he rushed to where the lone Tamarindo ambulance is parked.  

“I knocked on all the doors and asked at the supermarket and went to a pharmacy to call all the doctors,” he said. “I was desperate, I thought this man was dying.”

Returning to the scene, Kipershmit reported the accident to police, but it wasn’t until after the ambulance left with Sánchez – almost one hour after he was hit – that Kipershmit was detained. Three police officers transported Kipershmit in handcuffs to Santa Cruz – an hour’s drive – to administer a blood-alcohol test, which came back negative. 

“I haven’t had a drink in 40 years,” Kipershmit added. “I’m devastated; I’m horrified; I’m scared to death because I could go to jail. I’m responsible for whatever happens to this guy.” 

Sánchez remains stable after having surgery last week for a punctured lung – pierced by one of his seven broken ribs. 

On the day of the accident, Iván Sánchez accompanied his father on a roundabout, hospital-hopping ambulance ride – first to Santa Cruz, then to the hospital in Nicoya – until it was determined late that evening that the patient needed to be transferred to a hospital in San José for surgery.

Now staying near his father in the capital, Iván Sánchez said, “As far as I know, he’s pretty stable. The doctors say he is responding well after the operation, but I think he won’t be able to walk again for two or three months.”

On Aug. 4, Iván Sánchez said his father is expected to be released within a week, but will require hip-replacement surgery in six months. 

The accident investigation is ongoing. Police said Sánchez has two options after he is released from the hospital: Either reach a settlement with Kipershmit or press legal charges, at which point the case would move to the local prosecutor’s office. 

The issue of response time is a recurring one in Tamarindo – a rural town that thrives on the thousands of tourists who come each year to enjoy the beaches (TT, July 27). 

In June 2011, The Tico Times reported the death of Kevin Moraga, 15, who died from massive blood loss after he was bitten by a shark while surfing in Playa Grande, a few miles north of Tamarindo. Moraga fell into a coma while staying at a local hospital. Three days later, he was transferred to a San José hospital. He died the next day. 

Sánchez is recovering, despite a near brush with death.

“Could you imagine what would happen to a child or even a person like me? I don’t think I would survive that,” Iván Sánchez said. “He’s incredibly strong; my dad is like a hero.”


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