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Off-duty Coast Guard officer rescues 2 swimmers off Fire Island, officials say

Petty Officer 3rd Class Victoria Vanderhaden swam to the men, about 50 yards offshore, and instructed them to swim parallel to the coast to avoid the rip current.

Local EMS and other first responders arrive to

Local EMS and other first responders arrive to the beach near the Fire Island Lighthouse on Tuesday. Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 3rd Class Steven Strohmaier

An off-duty Coast Guard officer rescued two men swimming off the coast of Fire Island Tuesday night, officials said.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Victoria Vanderhaden, an active duty Coast Guard member at Station Eatons Neck, was walking on the beach near the Fire Island Lighthouse about 8:45 p.m. when she noticed two people swimming beyond the wave break, officials said. At the time, there were winds between 20 and 30 mph, and the waves were up to six feet, they said.

Vanderhaden, who lives in Patchogue and has only been stationed on Long Island for a couple of months, said the ocean looked like a washing machine.

"I personally would not have been out there," she said.

The men were most likely unable to return to shore because they were caught by a rip current and affected by the weather conditions, said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. j.g. Rodion Mazin. 

Vanderhaden, 21, watched the people in the water slowly get pulled away from the shore for 10 minutes before realizing they were in distress. A bystander also explained to her that they were calling for help in Spanish, she said. When she noticed there were no lifeguards on duty, she took action.

Vanderhaden, who was a lifeguard in Florida, where she lived previously, told a bystander to call 911 and the Coast Guard before diving into the water to help.

“Once I realized how much danger they were in, I knew I had to act fast,” Vanderhaden said in a statement. 

She swam first to the man farthest away, who was about 50 yards offshore, helping him stay afloat and pushing him from behind toward the other man, officials said. She then guided both men to shore, instructing them to swim parallel to the coast to avoid the rip current.

During their swim, Vanderhaden said she kept trying to calm the men down.

"Halfway through, I was kind of struggling myself and I was like 'Oh great, I'm creating a third drowning victim here,'" she said.

The three swimmers got to shore 30 minutes later, where paramedics and New York State Parks police officers ensured their well-being. The two men thanked Vanderhaden profusely, she said.

"It was exhausting, but definitely worth it," she said. "I know other people would have done the same thing."

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