(Photo: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)
When the McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg reopened last month after 28 years of dormancy, it was hailed as a civic achievement and summer oasis for Brooklynites. But the city’s largest public pool has been plagued by violent brawls that pit teens against lifeguards and even forced the NYPD to shut it down on June 29. Lifeguards are forbidden to talk to the media, but one spoke to the The Post’s Annie Karni about life in the aquatic war zone.
Every morning when I wake up, I pray for rain.
Because if it’s sunny and 90 degrees at 11 a.m., when my shift starts, there will be 1,500 people lined up around the block to get in and just 30 lifeguards to watch over them. And a lot of them are coming in drunk and high.
Every day, at least three people get kicked out of the pool. And that’s when there’s not an all-out brawl.
The first major fight happened on our second day of work, and we had to shut the pool after people got arrested. Three kids were doing flips in the pool, and we were trying to get them to stop. One of my fellow lifeguards was standing on the edge of the deck.
I turned around and saw one of the kids push him into the pool and start fighting him. I jumped into the pool and tried pulling the kids off and they started jumping on me. It was really intense. It turned into a brawl with three lifeguards in the water fighting off about 15 high-school kids.
We train for rescuing people from drowning or breaking their necks — we don’t train for being jumped by a group of teenagers, or how to defend ourselves in an attack. I was running on pure adrenaline.
Our supervisor told us after that incident that if we were scared to work at McCarren, we could get moved. But not a single one of us signed papers to get transferred. The 30 of us are like a family. We all work six days a week and basically live here at the pool together all summer and share this tiny back room during breaks.
A lot of us are kind of short, and we have to back each other up. They hired all rookie lifeguards for McCarren, and most of the lifeguards are high-school students, and six of them are girls. But we all wanted to stick it out together.
On hot days, I can have my eyes on more than 75 people at once. I sit in a tall chair under a big umbrella wearing bright orange shorts, looking out over a 37,950-square-foot pool, alert all the time. The afternoons are the hardest because teenagers come in to act stupid and are looking for a fight, and I have to keep my eyes on people who aren’t in the water.
After the lunch break, a lot of people come in who look like they don’t work. I don’t think any of the roughhousing is gang-related. It’s just teenagers acting stupid, trying to be cool in front of people.
If I blow my whistle, people just give me the finger and ask why they can’t do what they’re doing. Sometimes they won’t stop until there are five of us on them, blowing our whistles and telling them to stop.
The other day, I was standing a couple feet from a cop who told this kid to get out of the water after he wouldn’t listen to the lifeguards.
“I’m not scared of no cop,” the kid said to him, and stood on the edge of the pool deck. The cop gave him a shove to get him to move, and the kid pushed him back then punched the cop in the face. That’s when we got more cops. On a typical day, there are about 40 cops around the pool.
It makes me feel safer because, in the end, we’re just people with whistles. Nobody has to listen to us.
We get paid $13.55 an hour, plus overtime. So far, I’m sticking it out, and it’s not bad pay, but it’s a hard job. There’s something going on every day, and it’s not just violence.
One of the lifeguards called me over while I was watching the baby pool the other day. “There’s poop in the pool,” he said. “It’s scattered everywhere.” I saw one kid step on a piece. I tried to tell the parents to get out, but no one listened to me. I had to yell at them that there was feces in the pool.
We cleared out the pool and made everyone stand on the sides. The rule is five minutes for poop and 25 minutes for throw-up. Luckily, there were two new lifeguards, so we made them clean it up.