Matthew Wiszowaty was weeks away from his first semester at Cooper Union when a team of first responders pulled his limp body from the turbulent waters of Queens’ Rockaway Beach last Friday evening.
The 18-year-old aspiring engineer from Maspeth was rushed from Shore Front Parkway and Beach 101st Street to St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, but doctors were unable to save him. He died Saturday morning with his parents by his side.
The area of the beach had been blocked off to swimmers because beach erosion makes it impossible to place a lifeguard chair far back enough to create the necessary visibility, according to the city Parks Department. Red flags mark the area.
But community activists say the death of the teen — described by his father as “a saint in every aspect of life” — could have been prevented had the city done a better job of actively warning people to stay out of the water.
“It’s pure ineptitude on the city Department of Parks and Recreation,” said John Cori, the founder of Friends of Rockaway Beach, which advocates for causes from rebuilding the boardwalk to post-Hurricane Sandy fixes.
“They need to have security, at least two or three lifeguards or other personnel, to keep people out of the water,” he added.
Crystal Howard, a Parks Department spokesperson, said that “enforcement staff” warned Wiszowaty and ordered him to return to shore before he went missing.
Wiszowaty’s family told THE CITY his girlfriend vehemently denies that he was cautioned before going into the water.
The department had also placed red flags and signs at every entrance to the sand and on the beach between Beach 93rd and Beach 103rd streets to tell people that there is no lifeguard on duty.
“NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY,” the red sign reads by the stairway by where the drowning occurred. “Swimming or bathing is prohibited.”
But beachgoers looking for a quick dip in the ocean in a less crowded area of the shoreline often ignore warning signs.
“This is a recipe for disaster,” said Joe Puleo, president of District Council 37 Local 983, which represents Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers, who watch the beach.
“How do you control a crowd of a couple of thousand?” he asked. “It’s like me giving you a plate of food and smelling the food and saying you can’t eat it.”
A Lifeguard Low
On the evening of Aug. 6, Wiszowaty’s girlfriend hailed a park officer and told him the teen had gone missing in the water approximately 20 minutes earlier, according to an officer at the scene who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The closest lifeguard was stationed two blocks away at 103rd Street but was barred from leaving that post, even in an emergency, according to Puleo.
So a beach-rescue team from the NYPD and FDNY was called to the location.
As one member of the joint unit began to put on scuba gear a firefighter with binoculars spotted Wiszowaty’s body floating in the water, the officer at the scene said.
Wiszowaty’s girlfriend said she first tried to call police but had trouble getting cell phone reception from the beach, according to his family.
The city has long struggled to recruit enough lifeguards to protect swimmers over the 14-mile stretch of beaches. But city Parks Department officials said that the shortage this year did not play a role in Wiszowaty’s death.
“Even with an infinite lifeguard corps, there will always be inaccessible areas of open water in and around our city,” said Charisse Hill, another Parks Department spokesperson. “As such, it is extremely important for New Yorkers to exercise caution near and around water bodies.”
“People should never swim in undesignated areas — they are not safe,” she added.
There are currently 1,013 city lifeguards at beaches and public pools, the lowest total since 2016, aside from last year when many spots were closed due to the pandemic.
There were at least 350 more lifeguards from 2016 to 2019, Parks Department records show.
A ‘Funeral’ for the Beach
Beach erosion, which prevented lifeguards from setting up in the area where Wiszowaty drowned, has plagued Rockaway Beach for years.
In May 2018, Rockaway residents held a “funeral” after the city decided to close the popular stretch from Beach 91st to Beach 102nd streets due to sand erosion. Residents in the area have urged the federal government to do more to replenish the sand and firm up portions of the shoreline.
In 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers put 3.5 million cubic yards of sand in the area but the costly project was not enough to fend off the erosion hastened by Superstorm Sandy two years earlier.
The area where Wiszowaty drowned was open for swimming throughout the 2019 and 2020 beach seasons. It was last re-nourished in Spring 2019 with approximately 350,000 cubic yards of sand, according to the Parks Department.
Meanwhile, beachgoers continued to wade into the water just days after the tragedy.
Three people were playing in the surf before a park officer on a four-wheel ATV blew his whistle and ordered them out of the water at around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“It’s obvious that people are going to get in the water,” said Kaia Abraham, 18, who works at the La Fruteria concession stand.
“If there’s people swimming, there’s people drowning,” she added, “so they should do what they can to prevent it.”
Quest Soliman, 25, a surf instructor in the area, said this year he hasn’t seen many “enforcers” telling people to stay out of the water.
“A lot of people underestimate the ocean, especially in New York,” he said. “They don’t know that the waves actually get big here.”
Wiszowaty’s death has also brought renewed attention to the powerful union representing city lifeguards led by Peter Stein for more than 40 years.
Critics contend Stein routinely prioritizes his members’ needs over safety concerns by pushing the Parks Department to assign veteran lifeguards to cushy spots in pools away from Rockaway Beach where some of the most dangerous conditions exist.
“The Parks Department is allowing the lifeguard union to run New York City beaches and it’s a disgusting shame,” said Cori who runs Friends of Rockaway Beach.
A spokesperson for DC 37, of which Stein’s NYC Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508 is a part of, defended him.
“There is nothing more important to the lifeguards and those representing them than the safety of beachgoers,” said spokesperson Freddi Goldstein. “This is a tragic accident that reinforces the need to do more to keep people out of the water where it is not safe to swim — especially in areas like these where patrol is not an option.”
Stein himself and a Parks Department spokesperson declined to comment.
‘A Shining Light’
On Friday night, Leszek Wiszowaty, Matthew’s father, was on a city bus on his way home from Brooklyn to Maspeth, Queens, when he got a call from his wife who had just talked to the cops. The veteran court officer went to the 112th Precinct, where officers drove him to the hospital.
The younger Wiszowaty suffered multiple heart attacks and was moved to the coronary care unit before he passed at 9:55 Saturday morning, according to his father.
“I considered him a saint in every aspect of life,” Leszek Wiszowaty said Tuesday. “He was a devout Catholic. He was very helpful to his friends. He was a model son to us and his four sisters.
“That’s all I can say, it makes it that much harder to cope with this.”
More than 2,000 people logged in to watch a video feed of the funeral Mass from The Parish of Transfiguration in Maspeth on Wednesday.
“Today there is a huge emptiness in our hearts because Matthew who we know and love has been taken from us,” Bishop Witold Mroziewski told the mourners.
“This man had a heart that was pure gold,” said his brother-in-law, Dennis Poulos. “He was a shining light and he will be missed tremendously.”