Tomas Lopez was a lifeguard in Hallandale, Florida who saved a drowning tourist. Then he was fired. The private company that had hired him said he broke the rules. They claimed his action had caused a liability. The struggling swimmer he saved was 1,500 feet away from the zone Lopez was hired to guard. Lopez had deserted his post.
Tomas Lopez has become a national hero. His story has gone viral. It all seems quite unlikely. Lopez, who was making $8.25 an hour in this summer job, plans to go to college in the fall. He is just two years older than the 19-year-old teenager that he rescued.
The protocol for dealing with someone outside the authorized area was clear. The lifeguards were to call 911 and summon help. Of course, in this type of emergency, every minute is important. It can be the difference between life and death.
Lopez made the decision. He called out to another lifeguard to watch his assigned area. He knew his action would result in termination from his job. He did not care. He could not just watch someone drown. He later said in an interview with CBS News, “A job is not as important as a person’s life.”
Tomas Lopez pulled Maksim Samartev, a visitor from Estonia, from the ocean. Samartev was blue. The young man was dragged to shore, where Lopez administered CPR. He was taken to a local hospital.
Things have turned around. The company that fired Lopez, along with six other lifeguards who mutinied in the wake of the incident, has reconsidered. They offered the men their jobs back. Lopez politely declined.
Hallendale Beach officials presented Lopez and his coworkers keys to the city.
A civic-minded citizen who was on the beach and helped with the rescue was also honored. Maksim Samartev was out of the hospital and attended the event. He shook Lopez’s hand and thanked him.
Lopez said he thought he didn’t deserve all the recognition. He said he only did what he was supposed to do.
Perhaps he’s right. In order for society to function in a smooth and efficient way, there is a need for rules and regulations. From childhood, we are programmed to comply. We are admonished to listen to our parents, our teachers, the doctor, religious leaders and various authority figures. When we get older, that allegiance is often transferred to our business, to our boss or to our company. We are advised to conform.
One of the lifeguards who worked with Lopez had a poignant reflection regarding his company’s directive. He said, “Nothing can make that sound right. It’s wrong to not save someone.” It is important to realize that we need to think before we follow along. We need not abandon our common sense.
Following orders is not an excuse. The Nuremberg trials of German soldiers after World War II established that even in the military an individual is responsible for his own actions and there are directives that should not be followed.
Jewish law is very clear. When it comes to preserving a life, even the observance of Sabbath laws must be put aside. The sanctity of life is paramount. We are told that one who has saved a single life has in effect saved the entire world.
Tomas Lopez and his group of fellow lifeguards look like a ragtag group of skinny teenagers. They are, in fact, role models to us all. They bucked the system. They risked their livelihood. They just did the right thing.
About the Author: Shelley Benveniste is South Florida editor of The Jewish Press.
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