TTOR closes Chappy’s Norton Point Beach following swimming death

TTOR provides rescue boards and rescue torpedoes but no lifeguards at its Chappy beaches. — Photo courtesy of TTOR

A sunny day at the beach, at the end of a weeklong Martha’s Vineyard vacation with friends, ended tragically for a Watertown man. Michael Romm, 34, died after he was pulled from the water about 2 pm, Saturday, on the ocean side of the the Norton Point breach, on the Island’s south shore.

Numerous Edgartown rescue personnel and a private boater, who spotted the pair in distress and pulled them from the water, participated in the rescue effort. Mr. Romm could not be saved. He was declared dead at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. His 26-year-old female companion, Volha Tsetliakova of Watertown, was unhurt.

In the wake of the accident, on Sunday The Trustees closed Norton Point Beach to swimming. Chris Kennedy, Martha’s Vineyard superintendent, announced the decision.

Mr. Romm, a business analyst in the finance industry, and a large group of friends had rented a house on Chappaquiddick for one week, according to Edgartown Police. It was the end of the vacation, and Mr. Romm and his girlfriend were at the Chappy side of Norton Point Beach where sandbars and strong, shifting currents can create treacherous swimming conditions, even on the calmest days.

The couple was on a beach that is adjacent to the Wasque Reservation, owned and managed by The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), a private conservation group. TTOR also manages the county-owned Norton Point Beach. The Trustees does not provide lifeguards on its Chappy beaches.

Mr. Kennedy announced the decision to close the beach in the following email to The Times.

“The Trustees of Reservations are grieved by the tragic accident that occurred at Norton Point on Saturday, July 2. Our thoughts are with the Romm family during this very difficult time.

“The Trustees are committed to ensuring the safety of the more than 1,000,000 visitors to our 105 properties each year. We have closed all ocean-side swimming at Norton Point Beach on the Chappaquiddick end until further notice. Swimming is still allowed at the Wasque Swimming Beach on Chappaquiddick and at Norton Point Beach on the Edgartown side. We are working with Edgartown public safety officials to review the incident.”

In a separate email responding to questions from The Times, Mr. Kennedy said The Trustees has posted signs along the closed stretch of beach. “In addition, we will continue to have a ranger at the site throughout the day to advise beachgoers about the closed areas and the dangerous waters there,” Mr. Kennedy said.

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy said the beach is open for all activities but swimming. He said The Trustees planned to meet with town and county officials Thursday morning to evaluate the emergency response and what steps to take in the future. Asked about reopening the beach, he said, “We will evaluate that as we go along.”

Treacherous path

In April 2007, the one-two punch of crashing storm-driven ocean waves and powerful spring tides knocked open a breach in Norton Point Beach. Historically, storm breaches have occurred with some regularity in the two-mile long barrier beach that separates relatively shallow and normally placid Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.

As the opening has continued to migrate east toward Chappaquiddick, the strong tidal flow between the bay and the ocean has led to dramatic erosion along the shoreline, spawned numerous sandbars, and accentuated the shifting currents associated with Wasque Point.

On Saturday, the pair walked along a long sandbar. When they got to the end, they entered the deeper water for a swim and were swept up in the outgoing current. Mr. Romm began to panic, according to a police conversation with Ms. Tsetliakova.

“She said they walked really far out and it was still to their knees for a long time,” police officer Stephanie Immelt told The Times. “Then they got to a point where it dropped off, and it was deep and they swam a little bit past that and when they tried to get back they couldn’t.”

Mr. Romm struggled and began to swallow water. Ms. Tsetliakova told police that she was surprised that he was having trouble because he was a strong swimmer and they had not been in the water for a long time.

Ms. Tsetliakova began waving her arms to attract the attention of a nearby boater who was approaching the breach.

Cry heard

Dexter Nerney of Oak Bluffs had gone to Katama Bay with his family for a picnic on a sandbar island in his 18-foot Boston Whaler. Leaving his wife behind on the beach he, his son and two grandchildren went through the breach to look at the seals that congregate on a small sandbar island off Wasque. On their return his son heard a voice.

“My son heard a voice and he turned around. The two little boys were in the back seat and he thought it was one of them saying something, but it wasn’t,” Mr. Nerney said. “He heard it again and he turned again and he saw this arm come up out of the water waving at us.”

Mr. Nerney pulled his boat over to the swimmers. “The female seemed to be doing pretty well, and she said, ‘Take care of him first.'” Mr. Nerney put his boat ladder over the side of the boat. “His head was just barely above water. He couldn’t move his arms and was just floating there.”

Mr. Romm was a large man. The boaters struggled to get him over the Whaler’s high sides. “It was all we could do to get him inside the boat,” he said.

Mr. Nerney called 9-1-1 and said he would meet emergency responders at the Katama boat landing. Edgartown police, fire, rescue, lifeguards, ambulance, harbor and shellfish personnel responded to the call of two swimmers in distress.

Four Edgartown lifeguards carrying floatation boards, two men and two women, were the first emergency personnel to arrive. The lifeguards raced from South Beach by all-terrain vehicles to lend assistance.

As Mr. Nerney motored thorough the breach he ran aground on a sandbar just off the Chappy side.

He could see a harbormaster’s boat on the other side of another sandbar and began waving to attract their attention. As he tried to attract assistance, the lifeguards appeared, “…after a long run and swim through the opening. They were really great, they got right on him. He was still at the bottom of the Whaler. They started CPR on him.”

The harbormaster’s boat navigated the shallows and arrived next to the grounded boat. The rescuers placed Mr, Romm, still semiconscious, on a backboard and transferred him to the harbormaster’s boat. Assistant harbormaster Byron Lynn, an EMT, began performing CPR.

“They were working on him for quite a while,” Mr. Nerney said.

Mr. Romm was transferred to a shallow draft boat, operated by Paul Bagnall, better able to navigate the shallows. Mr. Bagnall, shellfish constable, had arrived with a paramedic. Mr. Romm was later declared dead at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

A service for Mr. Romm was held Tuesday at the Stanetsky Memorial Chapel in Brookline.

Saturday’s swimming emergency was the second this season. On June 20, three teens rescued two young men swimming in the same area (June 23, “Teens rescue pair struggling in current off Wasque Point”) after they also stepped off a sandbar and became caught in the current.

Wide response

Saturday’s rescue attempt highlighted the close working relationship among Island emergency personnel. As is often the case, many of those who responded seized the initiative after overhearing the emergency radio call.

Edgartown manages South Beach, a roughly one mile stretch of sand between the ends of Herring Creek Road to the west and Katama Road to the east. The town provides lifeguards and restrooms at the popular state-owned beach.

The over-sand vehicle entrance to county-owned Norton Point Beach, managed by The Trustees, is at the end of Katama Road.

Dennis Arnold, Edgartown lifeguard supervisor, said there was no specific call for his lifeguards. He overheard the emergency call from The Trustees on his radio. “I heard the people for The Trustees calling for help,” he said. “I heard Norton Point, and we always respond when we hear about problems on Norton Point Beach because they have no guards.”

The guards did not initially know that their help was needed on the Chappy side of the breach. When they arrived the tide was running out fast. The guards could see the boat and the stricken man and did not hesitate. “My guards had a tough time getting across,” Mr. Arnold said. “But they are well-trained, and they were able to swim the breach from the Edgartown side to the Chappy side.”

Assistant harbormaster Byron Lynn and wharfinger Christina Colarusso also overheard the call and responded in a harbor patrol boat. They helped to transfer Mr. Romm from the grounded Whaler to their larger boat where there was more room to allow him to lie down. Mr. Lynn, an EMT, began CPR when Mr. Romm appeared to go into cardiac arrest.

In a telephone conversation with The Times, Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair praised the actions of the lifeguards, his harbor employees, and all the other responders. “It was a big team effort,” he said

Mr. Blair said the incident also highlighted the communication difficulties when multiple agencies respond, each operating on a different radio channel.

“How many radio channels can you listen to at the same time?” he said. “It was real chaotic for a while.”