Lifeguards were not on duty at Long Beach Tuesday because the crew does not begin weekday duty until next week, said City Manager Charles Theofan.
And police officers weren't checking in on beachgoers either, because city policy requires them to patrol the four miles of beach only when the ocean's waves are expected to be particularly rough.
The death of Nicole Suriel, 12, was the second drowning at the beach in a month. A 19-year-old Baruch College student drowned May 26, near the same section of Long Beach.
While lifeguards were at the beach Tuesday to place buoys and prepare for the summer season, they were not working as guardians of the surf and were unaware the girl was in trouble.
Theofan said the city began hiring lifeguards to work a week earlier than usual in 2008, setting the week before the Fourth of July weekend as the full opening, a move designed to prevent drownings. It was difficult to have them start sooner because lifeguards tend to be students who work at the beach during summer vacations, he added.
"The reality is our lifeguards are college students and many of our most experienced and seasoned lifeguards are schoolteachers," he said. "We can't open until they're around."
Lifeguards have been working weekdays at state beaches since Memorial Day, said Tom Donovan, president of the lifeguard union whose members work at locations such as Robert Moses State Park and at Jones Beach.
"If they only hire teachers and students at Long Beach, they are missing out on a lot of other people," he said.
Theofan said Nassau County health codes require two lifeguards in each section of the beach when it is open. But he said other requirements governing breaks lifeguards must take forces the city to assign four to each section. "It's a tremendous amount of manpower," he said. "We stretch it. We do manage to open a week earlier, but that's the best we can do."
Theofan added that police were not patrolling because the surf forecast Tuesday was for calm waters. "Obviously this pains us," he said.
"We want people to come and enjoy our beach and now we're under the shroud of tragedy, but we feel terrible about this as well."