A city lifeguard who was hailed as a hero after he drowned saving a swimmer in distress one week earlier was honored in Newport Beach during two separate memorials on Sunday.
Thousands of people showed up for a memorial paddle out and “Celebration of Life” for 32-year-old Ben Carlson, who died in the line of duty after he and the swimmer he was rescuing were struck by 10 to 12 foot waves late last Sunday afternoon.
The unidentified rescued swimmer survived, and Newport Beach Fire Department Assistant Chief Rob Williams called him a “hero.”
Carlson, who had been a lifeguard for 15 years, died just four days after his 32nd birthday, according to a the City of Newport Beach’s website.
He was the first lifeguard in city history to die in the line of duty, according to Newport Beach Fire Chief Scott Poster.
Sunday’s paddle out began at 9 a.m., and thousands of people showed up at the beach for the tribute. Many onlookers stood on the pier and on the beach to watch as the paddle boarders swam out to sea.
Some of those who paddled out personally knew Carlson and used the occasion to pay tribute to their fallen friend.
One friend who knew Carlson for years called him “genuinely a great guy.”
“I met him playing water polo when we were both about 15, 16 years old. And then had the privilege of later working with him as a lifeguard side-by-side,” Cory Ritzau said.
However, many of those who participated did not know him.
“I did not know Ben personally,” said Larry Moore, a lifeguard in San Clemente. “But I’m here because there’s a brotherhood of lifeguards all up and down the coast, and it’s such a shock to have one of our own pass away like this. It hit us all deep.”
One Newport Beach resident who paddled out said he was at the same spot where Carlson went down, and wanted to pay his respects.
“We owe it to them, they save a lot of people,” Eric Cann said. “The surf was really big that day, and a lot of people were being rescued so, you know, he was in our prayers. We just appreciate the service that they do for us.”
As part of the tribute, the Coast Guard did a flyover in honor of Carlson and the work that he did as a lifeguard in Newport Beach.
Hours later, thousands came to pay their respects a memorial service that was held on the beach.”
During the service, Newport fire Chief Scott Poster awarded Carlson a medal of valor.
“There is no greater act of heroism and bravery than giving your life to save another. Ben is a true hero. I am proud to provide his family with his medal of valor.
Williams, who also spoke, added that Carlson had made “thousands of rescues in his career, one not more important than the other.”
The ceremony concluded as the sun set with a bell ringing and a radio broadcast of his alarm.