By Simone Sebastian
HARLEM — "Where is the lifeguard?" screamed Erin Bailey, a 26-year-old English teacher. She was watching helplessly from the Long Beach shore as an aggressive riptide pushed at least five of her students toward the rocky jetty she had just warned them to stay away from.
As Bailey called from the shore, a 12-year-old classmate swam toward his friends to help. Nicole Suriel grasped on to him, desperately trying escape the current that threatened to swallow her. Instead, she pulled him down into the same vicious waters and slipped out of his hands.
It would take rescuers more than an hour to find Nicole's lifeless body.
The heartbreaking details of how Columbia Secondary School's celebratory year-end trip turned into a tragedy were revealed Wednesday in a report by the New York Public Schools Special Commissioner of Investigation.
Following a series of missteps — from school leaders' careless, last-minute planning to teacher's unexplainable decision to let non-swimmers into the ocean — that June 22 beach trip stole the life of a little girl and, now, perhaps the jobs of the educators who were supposed to protect her.
The wheels that put the tragedy in motion began in April, when a sixth-grade class at the Harlem school earned a trip to the beach because of their fundraising efforts for the school.
The eager students wouldn't let school administrators forget their promised reward. As summer break approached, they needled Assistant Principal Andrew Stillman daily about the beach trip.
When Stillman brought it up to Principal Jose Maldonado-Rivera, the school leader resisted. Sure, a day a the beach had seemed like a good way to motivate the kids two months earlier. Now, it was just too much. This would be the students' sixth field trip that month. And Stillman had too much administrative work to do before the end of the school year.
But something made Maldonado-Rivera suddenly change his mind. Stillman would be there to help supervise, he thought. And besides "It's not an extraordinary thing in our school to do these kinds of trips," he would later tell investigators.
With Maldonado-Rivera's go-ahead, Stillman didn't waste a second making plans. He sent an e-mail to parents: Students should come to school the next day "dressed to swim and play in the sun."
Back at school, the sixth-grade class had just finished eating lunch when Erin Bailey, in her first year as a teacher, made the announcement. The long-awaited beach trip would happen the next day, she said.
According to the original plan, Stillman, Bailey and 19-year-old teaching intern Victoria Wong would accompany the two dozen students.
But when Stillman woke up at about 4:30 a.m. the next day, he was overcome with worry. The principal had been right, there was too much work to get done. He couldn't afford to waste a day at the beach.
He started looking for a last-minute replacement chaperone.
Two hours later, Bailey sent him a text message. She wanted bring along her 28-year-old boyfriend, Joseph Garnevicus, to the beach, even though he would later tell investigators he couldn't swim.
The trip was a go.
Shortly after 8 a.m. on June 22, the group boarded the A train from Harlem to Penn Station, where they caught a Long Island Rail Road train to Long Beach.
As they walked down the Edwards Boulevard entrance, they passed signs that beach officials said warned that the beach was closed, that no lifeguards were on duty and visitors were banned from swimming.
A few students noticed the signs, the report said. It appears that none of the chaperones did. They joined nearly 100 others on the beach, where another city school class was also on a field trip.
The Columbia Secondary School students dropped their towels, clothes and sunscreen bottles into the sand as Bailey reeled off the rules: students who can't swim aren't allowed in water deeper than mid-thigh; swimmers can go in up to their waist, she told them.
And don't forget, she added, stay away from the jetty.
Some students obeyed the rules, playing with a football near shore or splashing in the knee-deep waves.
But it appears that some, including Suriel, who hadn't taken Columbia Secondary School swimming lessons earlier that year, did not.
The class hadn't been at the beach for an hour when suddenly, children's voices called out — "Help!".
Wong, the teaching intern, swam toward the struggling students, pulling the 12-year-old boy Suriel had clung to onto the jetty rocks. Bailey's boyfriend told her, "You have to help them," and she went into the ocean, too.
Together, they pulled five children to safety.
But Nicole couldn't be reached. Two passersbys went after her, but fatigue overcame them. Another managed to grab her wrist and plunged into the water. When the man came back up, Nicole wasn't with him.
Soon, the ocean was threatening to make Bailey a victim. The waters slammed her into the jetty and rescuers had to pull her out of the water. Her legs were cut up and her body was physically exhausted. Emergency rescuers fitted her with an oxygen mask.
On shore, 23 children were accounted for. The students, distraught and crying, knew who was missing.
A group of off-duty lifeguards, who were preparing to open the beach four days later, responded to the calls for help along with numerous emergency response teams. After nearly 75 minutes of searching, lifeguard Keith Moran discovered Nicole Suriel.
The current had pushed her body to the opposite side of the jetty.
Her heart wasn't beating. CPR didn't resuscitate her.
Soon after, hospital workers pronounced Nicole Suriel dead.