Fired lifeguard offered his job back; he declines

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- A lifeguard fired earlier this week for leaving his post to help a drowning man was offered his job back Thursday. His answer: Thanks, but no thanks.

"They are trying to fix the wrong that they did. On a personal level, I just don't want to work for that company anymore," said Tomas Lopez, 21, of Davie, Fla. "It's not out of spite against the company. I really just want to move on and get another job."

Mr. Lopez was fired this week by Jeff Ellis Management, the Orlando, Fla.-based firm paid by Hallandale Beach to protect its beaches. At least two other lifeguards were fired in the incident, and several others quit in protest.

A supervisor said this week that Mr. Lopez was terminated because he knowingly broke a rule that prohibits the guards from leaving the protected area on the beach. The incident occurred about 1,500 feet south of the firm's boundaries, where swimmers are warned that they swim at their own risk.

The supervisor explained that Mr. Lopez's actions placed swimmers in his patrol area in danger, and could have gotten the company into legal trouble.

The unidentified swimmer has since been treated and released from Aventura Hospital.

Thursday afternoon, as a mob of television cameras took turns interviewing Mr. Lopez and his lifeguard friends on the beach, the company's owner said he believes that local supervisors were too quick with the pink slips. "I am of the opinion that the supervisors acted hastily," Jeff Ellis said in a phone interview.

The company began an investigation shortly after news of the incident began to spread worldwide via the Internet. News organizations jockeyed to interview the Broward Community College student.

At least two groups have claimed responsibility for hacking the company's website and taking it down. Many outraged residents have threatened never to visit Hallandale Beach, while others have offered Mr. Lopez new jobs.

Mr. Ellis said that since Monday's incident, he has been able to confirm that no area of the beach his company is contracted to patrol was left unattended while Mr. Lopez went out of the area to assist the swimmer.

"To me, that was the most critical question: Was the beach ever left unattended?" Mr. Ellis said. "I have since learned that answer is no. The beach was supervised at all times."

Given those circumstances, Mr. Lopez should not have been punished for doing what he thought was correct, Mr. Ellis said. "It was not the appropriate course of action to take," he said.

The company's internal investigation continues. At least two other lifeguards said they were fired that day after being asked if they would have taken similar action. They, too, will decline to return to their jobs.

"They sat me down and told me that my answer will determine if I get to keep my job or not," said Travis Madrid, 20. "When I told him I would do the same thing that Tommy did, they told me I was dismissed. I don't want to work for a company like that."

Mr. Ellis said he was still looking into why the other lifeguards were fired. But he said they, too, would be offered their jobs back, as will the others who resigned. The company owner said the outcome of the investigation will determine whether the local supervisors will be punished for their actions.

City officials said Thursday that they were still awaiting a full report from the company before taking any action. City records show that the company began providing lifeguard services for Hallandale Beach in 2003, as Jeff Ellis and Associates. Mr. Ellis' other company, Jeff Ellis Management, currently holds the contract and manages the lifeguards, he said.

Mayor Joy Cooper said she had been on a cruise vacation as the news spread and heard about the incident when she returned home late Thursday afternoon. "I was appalled." she said. "We have worked with Ellis for years, and I think this was a misstep. You don't punish someone for trying to save a person's life, regardless where it is on the beach. We should be giving this man a key to the city."

Mr. Lopez on Thursday said he was still trying to cope with his newfound notoriety. He said he spent most of his Fourth of July holiday being interviewed by television and radio stations across the world, many of which labeled him a hero.

He said he finally turned off his cell phone late Wednesday. "I bought a bunch of fireworks, and I wanted to celebrate," Mr. Lopez said. "I am still the same guy."



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