Harlem schoolgirl on field trip drowns off Long Beach

Family photo of Nicole Suriel from 2009. Suriel

Family photo of Nicole Suriel from 2009. Suriel drowned in the surf at Long Beach on June 22, 2010. (Credit: WCBS)

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A 12-year-old girl on a field trip with her Harlem classmates drowned while swimming off Long Beach Tuesday, where no lifeguards were on duty.

A teacher at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering - one of three chaperones looking after sixth-grader Nicole Suriel - was injured as she was tossed against a stone jetty while trying to rescue the girl, officials said.

Dozens of police and lifeguards - on hand to set up for weekday lifeguard staffing due to begin next week - joined the search for Nicole. Her motionless body was pulled from the water shortly after 12:30 p.m., more than 90 minutes after she went under off Edwards Boulevard, according to Long Beach and school officials.

"I can tell you her teacher made a valiant attempt to save her; the teacher went in the water looking for her, got pretty banged up against the jetty and had to be rescued," said Long Beach City Manager Charles Theofan.

Nicole was with 24 students and three teachers on a school-sanctioned trip. A parent said the trip was part of an academic project about water, but a school department representative said the trip's exact purpose - leisure or academic - was unclear.

The school, which caters to the academically gifted, referred questions to the city education department. Last night, Chancellor Joel Klein issued a statement saying: "Obviously, we are working diligently to determine exactly what happened and to provide immediate support to the students and staff of the school."

Department spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz said the case has been referred to Special Commissioner for Investigation Richard Condon. "Questions are being raised and this is the best way to see if proper protocols were met," she said.

Brittany Polini, 18, said she was at the beach with friends when the school group arrived and kids "ran into the ocean." Polini, of Forest Hills, said she became concerned when she saw a girl in the water about 10 feet beyond a jetty.

"I saw her head bobbing up and down," she said. "I thought to myself, 'That girl is out by herself.' "

Tuesday afternoon, the bus returning students to the school at West 123rd Street in Morningside Heights was met by police cars and department officials.

Ida Johnson, 43, of the Bronx, held her 12-year-old son's hand as they left the school. The boy had an orange beach towel around his neck. "It's sad," Johnson said. "It could have been [my son]." Johnson said her son knew the drowning victim. "He's shocked but OK," she said.

A fellow sixth-grader named Maya said Nicole "kept out of trouble. She was smart."

The school, affiliated with Columbia University, opened in 2007. It is now composed of sixth, seventh and eighth grades and "serves academically talented students who have an interest in a rigorous and demanding program focusing on math, science, and engineering," according to its website.

In a letter sent home with students, Principal Rafaela Espinal of Ralph Bunche School/PS 125, where Columbia Secondary is located, said Nicole was caught in a riptide and drowned. All field trips have been canceled, and the school had bereavement counselors available to students.

Brad Trettien, 29, of Garden City, was at the beach when he noticed low-flying helicopters, police and lifeguards searching the water.

Trettien said he watched as firefighters and lifeguards formed a line and slowly walked in shallow water. Other rescue personnel scanned the water with binoculars or searched on Jet Skis and by boat. Suddenly, he said, "everyone started screaming."

Emergency personnel carried the girl's body on a board to a pickup truck. Later, he said a group of students sat in a circle as an adult spoke to them. "One girl was crying and distraught," he said.

With Yamiche Alcindor, Matthew Coleman and Keith Herbert

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