HALLANDALE BEACH — A South Florida lifeguard who rushed to save a drowning man has been fired for leaving the section of the beach his company is paid to patrol.
The Orlando company, Jeff Ellis and Associates, says Tomas Lopez broke a company rule and could have put beachgoers in his section of Hallandale Beach in jeopardy.
"We have liability issues and can't go out of the protected area," supervisor Susan Ellis told the Sun Sentinel. "What he did was his own decision. He knew the company rules and did what he thought he needed to do."
A beachgoer rushed to Lopez's stand Monday afternoon asking for help. Lopez said he saw a man struggling in the water south of his post and ran to his aid.
The man had been swimming along an unprotected stretch of beach, Hallandale Beach officials said Tuesday.
"It was a long run, but someone needed my help. I wasn't going to say no," said Lopez, 21, of Davie.
By the time Lopez arrived, several witnesses had pulled the drowning man out of the water. Lopez said the man appeared to be semiconscious and had water in his lungs.
Lopez and an off-duty nurse helped the man until the city's paramedics arrived.
After the rescue, Lopez said his boss asked him to fill out an incident report and then fired him for leaving his assigned area.
"They didn't tell me in a bad way. It was more like they were sorry, but rules are rules," Lopez said. "I couldn't believe what was happening."
The rescue was performed about 1,500 feet south of the protective boundaries set by Lopez's employer. The unprotected area has signs alerting beachgoers to swim at their own risk.
Other lifeguards watched Lopez's area during the rescue and were on the phone with 911 operators, the company said.
"The beach remained protected at all times," Ellis said.
Lopez became a lifeguard four months ago after passing the company's requirements, which include swimming and physical exams. The job pays $8.25 an hour, the lifeguards said.
Hallandale Beach began outsourcing its lifeguards in 2003 to save money. The city pays Jeff Ellis and Associates about $334,000 a year to provide four lifeguards and one supervisor at the beach year-round, said city spokesman Peter Dobens.
The company also provides lifeguard services at the city's pools as part of the contract. Its contract expires this year.
The man Lopez rushed to save, whose name was not released due to privacy laws, remained hospitalized Tuesday in intensive care, Dobens said.
Two other lifeguards have quit in protest of Lopez's firing. One of them, Szilard Janko, told the newspaper, "What was he supposed to do? Watch a man drown?"