Relatives of three people who died when the sand at a New Jersey beach gave way beneath their feet begged a judge to permanently close the beach, saying it’s only a matter of time before someone else dies there.
Relatives of Brad Smith asked Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez on Friday to order a section of the beach in North Wildwood, along the Hereford Inlet, closed to the public following the July 2012 death of Smith.
Although they are not part of the litigation, relatives of Jamila Watkins and Shayne Hart, who died in a similar 2009 accident, also called for the beach to be closed.
North Wildwood and the state say the deaths were due to natural conditions that government has no obligation to fix.
“Everyone knows that this will happen again; it’s just a matter of time,” said Nicole Gaeta, Smith’s oldest daughter. “It would destroy all of us.”
Sandra Smith, of Horsham, Pennsylvania, is suing North Wildwood over the 2012 incident that killed her husband and nearly killed their 7-year-old daughter.
Brad Smith was walking in ankle-deep water at the beach with his daughter when the sand collapsed, plunging them and a friend into the swirling waters. A passer-by on a personal watercraft rescued the girl, who was being held above the waves by her father before he drowned.
Three years earlier, Watkins, 27, and Hart, 15, were walking along the water’s edge when the sand gave way beneath them, plunging them into the swirling waters of the inlet.
The plaintiffs have presented a report from a former official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which does extensive beach protection and restoration work in New Jersey, that said tidal conditions undermined sand just under the water line, creating a drop-off of 10 feet or more that’s invisible to people walking along the water’s edge.
North Wildwood’s chief lifeguard said in a deposition the town knew of the condition, which occurs twice each day, for at least six years before Smith drowned.
Signs at the beach prohibit swimming and warn of dangerous rip currents. But Smith’s family wants the town to post more alarming signs that warn of a “sudden drop-off, deadly currents and whirlpools” and note that “people have drowned in these waters.”
Mendez said he will issue a ruling in the next few weeks.
At Friday’s hearing, a letter from an official with the state Department of Environmental Protection was made public, saying the department would not object to the beach being closed “upon a showing that an unreasonable risk to public safety exists.”
Michael Barker, an attorney for North Wildwood, said the town is under no legal obligation to fix conditions at the inlet.
“The state and North Wildwood did not create the channel, did not create the current, did not create the tides,” he said. “All those things are natural conditions.”
Friday’s hearing involved a request to have the beach closed immediately. Smith’s family has a separate lawsuit pending that seeks damages arising from his death. That litigation is on hold until the more immediate question of whether the beach should be shut is determined.
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