BELMAR, NJ — The 13-year-old girl who drowned off the Belmar beach on Thursday, June 15, has been identified as Mitzi Hernandez and her 12-year-old cousin who remains on life-support as Emily Gonzalez-Perez, according to officials.
Gonzalez-Perez, remains in critical condition at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, Neptune. The incident is still currently under investigation by the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office and Belmar Police Department.
The girls’ names were released shortly after dozens of people gathered at St. Rose Catholic Church this afternoon, June 16, for a prayer service for the two Belmar Elementary School students. Hernandez was a sixth-grader at the school, while Gonzalez-Perez just completed fifth grade.
As members of the Belmar community left the church, those who know both girls — friends, classmates, teachers — kept asking each other how such a tragedy could occur.
Also attending the service were three people — two of whom did not know the other person until the tragic accident brought them together. They said they tried to rescue the second girl from the surf off the Ninth Avenue beach as rescue attempts were under way with the first girl.
JeanMarie Ceravolo-Schulman of Wall said she was at the beach with her three young children when she saw the second girl, who she identified as Hernandez, in the water.
“I saw her, and kicked off my shoes and threw my sunglasses, and went in [the water]. There was no time to think; I was screaming and screaming for help,” she said.
Her screams drew the attention of James Lavalle of Tinton Falls and Emma Kowalcyk of Belmar, who were nearby on the beach. That was when Lavalle went to help Ceravolo-Schulman pull Hernandez to shore, as Kowalcyk said she called 911.
“She was completely under [the water],” Lavalle recalled.
“Another woman came and helped with CPR, then the rescue team and police came and did everything they could. We all did everything we could,” Ceravolo-Schulman said.
Kowalcyk was particularly distraught today, she said, because her younger brother, Cameron, was a classmate of Hernandez.
“I’m just so upset over this. I just can’t believe it happened,” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks.
Grief counseling sessions were held today at Belmar Elementary School — the last day of the school year for students and the day after its 55-member eighth-grade class participated in their graduation ceremony. As the graduation was under way, the massive emergency scene was playing out six blocks away on Belmar’s beachfront.
“A tragedy like this has shaken our community,” Mayor Matthew Doherty said. “We have to figure out a way so that something like this doesn’t happen again.”
The girls were swimming unsupervised, and lifeguards were not on duty at the time of the accident. Weekly lifeguard hours start the Monday following the last day of school, and once they do, hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Weekend hours are from 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. and have been in effect since Memorial Day.
According to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, a 911 call was transferred into Belmar Police headquarters at 6:19 p.m. for “a distressed person in the ocean.” A Belmar patrolman and a member of the water rescue team arrived on the scene at 10th and Ocean avenues, and swam out to rescue the victim, now identified as Gonzalez-Perez, who is fighting for her life at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.
At approximately 6:54 p.m., as a search of the area was conducted, a second victim, now identified at Hernandez, was located unconscious in the ocean. Police and emergency personnel removed the victim and began CPR until first aid arrived and transported her to JSUMC, where she was pronounced dead, according to the prosecutor’s office statement.
For nearly four hours, until after 10 p.m., a full-block area of the beachfront along Ocean Avenue from Eighth to Ninth Avenue was closed off as police, fire and emergency responders converged to assist with the search, rescue and recovery effort. They included members from the Monmouth County Emergency Response Team, U.S. Coast Guard, N.J. State Police, Belmar Water Rescue, Manasquan Fire Department, Monmouth County Fire Marshall's Office, Manasquan Fire Department, Avon-by-the-Sea Police Department, Bradley Beach Police Department and paramedics.