San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

3rd body recovered after U.S. teens drown off Costa Rica's Pacific coast

The students came to Costa Rica for a week to work in orphanages and build churches. And on the last day of the mission trip, they headed for the country’s famous beaches to relax. A powerful rip tide towed five of the teenagers into the ocean. Bystanders saved two, but the other three didn’t make it back to shore.    

Costa Rica’s heavy ocean currents claimed three U.S. students’ lives this week. The students were caught in a rip current while swimming at Playa Bejuco, on the central Pacific coast. The three were on a Christian mission trip with other teenagers from Columbus, Ohio in the U.S.

A rescue team found the body of a third drowning victim, 16-year-old Kai Lamar, at Bejuco beach on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast at around 4 a.m. Friday, Costa Rican Red Cross spokesman Freddy Román said.

Seventeen-year-old Caity Jones died Wednesday morning, and the body of James Smith, 16, was recovered Thursday morning, according to the Costa Rican Red Cross.

Two others in their group, Jessica Kohler and Joel Bruck, were also swept away but locals rushed to pull them out of the water, said Gustavo Artavia, a local Red Cross worker.

The swimmers were part of a group of 12, including the 16- and 17-year-old teen missionaries, a teacher and the mother of one of the drowning victims, Artavia said.

“It was their last day on the trip where they were going to get some free time,” said Sandy Shoaf, James Smith’s mother. “And so they took to the beach.”

The group, according to Ohio newspaper and news agency reports, was made up of students from Patriot Preparatory Academy and Fairfield Christian Academy, and were on an excursion organized in connection with Impulse International Missions Trips, a U.S.-based organization that organizes mission trips to Central America. Jones, Smith and Lamar all attended Patriot Preparatory Academy. Lamar’s mother was a chaperone on the trip, Shoaf said.

Playa Bejuco

As the tide dragged the students into deeper waters, locals reacted to save those caught in the surf. Álvaro García, a 43-year-old Bejuco resident, was starting his day Wednesday as an administrative worker at the University of Costa Rica’s Bejuco campus when someone came to the university calling for help. García grabbed a surfboard and headed to the shore without hesitation. Not a surfer, the university employee told The Tico Times, knowing Bejuco’s merciless tides well, he kept boards around specifically for situations such as this.

By the time he got there, one teen, Jessica, was already being carried out of the water alive. He spotted another still fighting for life about 150 meters out at sea. It was Joel.

“When I got there you couldn’t see anybody except Joel, still alive,” García said. The university employee swam ferociously out to where the teen was and swept him back to safety on shore.

After the rescue, he said, the teen was in fine condition, just exhausted and frightened.

“Then we went looking for bodies of the drowning victims and we found Caity,” he said.

Since the accident, Artavia said part of the group has returned to San José hoping to board a plane back to the United States. The group’s accompanying guardians remained at the beach as search and rescue teams looked for Lamar’s body into the early hours of Friday morning.

Red Cross spokesman Guillermo Arroyo said Wednesday he ordered a jet to fly a U.S. embassy staff member and an English-speaking psychologist from San José to the area to help the group cope with the loss.

The U.S. Embassy would not comment on the event, citing U.S. federal privacy law that prohibits divulging citizens’ information to the press. Shoaf told The Tico Times that the U.S. embassy expedited passports for James’ father, and he planned to arrive in Costa Rica on Thursday night.

She said Patriot Preparatory Academy is a Christian high school that has done missionary trips to Costa Rica in the past. James Smith was studying to be a youth pastor.

“All he ever wanted to do was for Jesus,” Shoaf said. “And that’s what he was doing when he was in Costa Rica.”

Drownings, a longtime scourge on Costa Rica’s beaches, have increased this year.

From January through April, 47 drowning deaths have occurred in oceans and rivers in the country, many of the victims were tourists unfamiliar with Costa Rica’s sometimes fierce currents, according to Red Cross figures.

“The figure this year is already really high,” Román said. “In four months we’ve seen about the same number as in seven months the year before.”

All told, 76 people died by drowning in 2010, according to figures registered by the Red Cross, Costa Rica’s non-governmental first responders to accidents, emergencies and disasters.

According to Artavia, the Parrita area Red Cross worker, as many as five people have drowned this year at Bejuco, known to be among the most treacherous beaches for its rip tide, he said.

Despite the lack of lifeguards, Artavia said the accidents occurred from a bit of carelessness on the victims’ part. He said a sign near the beach’s entrance warns visitors, in Spanish and English, of the dangerous currents.

“(You need) a surfboard or boogie board. It’s not for swimming,” the emergency worker said of Playa Bejuco.

But many of the country’s most popular swimming and surfing spots lack trained lifeguards. The absence of lifeguards has long been a point of concern for coastal residents who each year learn of unsuspecting visitors or locals getting carried out to sea.

“You have to take into account that this country has a lot of beach,” Román said, adding that the Red Cross does what it can to protect swimmers where it can, but often it’s the visitors’ own “carelessness” and failure to follow precaution that leads to accidents.

Artavia said lifeguards are on duty in Parrita only on weekends and during peak times, such as Holy Week and other holidays. When asked why such a dangerous beach lacks lifeguards, Artavia said the community simply couldn’t afford them.

“The community doesn’t have the money to pay lifeguards,” he said. “The local government is in the same situation. And so is the Red Cross, there aren’t enough volunteers to cover 45 kilometers of beach in Parrita – and those are 45 km of dangerous beach.”

Not the first time

In 2006, three U.S. teenagers and a teacher drowned in the Parrita area. Dangerous currents on Palo Seco Beach killed the four U.S. citizens from Kansas. The group was in the region for a language-immersion trip.

Palo Seco Beach, like Bejuco, is a strip of land on the central Pacific coastline, between the popular beach towns of Jacó and Quepos.

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