Daily News, June 23, 2010, "Girl Swept Away By Sea"



BY ERIK BADIA, MEREDITH KOLODNER and LARRY McSHANE

A celebratory class trip ended in death and devastation yesterday after a Harlem sixth-grader drowned in a swift Long Island riptide — despite posted warnings to stay out of the water.

Nicole Suriel, 12, vanished in the Atlantic Ocean while surrounded by Columbia Secondary School classmates on a bright summer morning, authorities said.

One of the girl’s panic-stricken teachers, who was desperately looking for the child, nearly drowned, and was pulled to the chaotic beach by rescuers who couldn’t locate the youngster for 90 wrenching minutes.

The teacher “was screaming,” said witness Mario Ciccarello, 18, who works for a beach chair rental business. “She was hysterical. . . It just all happened so fast.”

The sudden and shocking death raised immediate questions about why three adult chaperones, including an undergraduate intern, let the kids in the ocean despite signs advising no lifeguards were on duty in Long Beach, L.I.

“If I knew that there were no lifeguards I wouldn’t have let her go,” Nicole’s father, Juan Suriel, said through a translator last night outside the family’s Harlem home.


“That’s the worse case that could have been imagined that no one was there.”

“Obviously, we are working diligently to determine exactly what happened,” Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said.

Nicole was rushed to Long Beach Medical Center about noon once she was discovered. Her body was brought up the beach on a board past disbelieving friends and teachers.

“It was chaos,” said another eyewitness, Brad Trettien, 29, of Garden City, L.I. “Everybody was going nuts.”

The quiet, half-empty beach exploded in activity, with rescuers on jet skis, police boats and firefighters hunting for the lost girl.

A circle of shattered students sat on the beach with two teachers after the body was found, struggling to fathom what happened.

The preteen and her classmates won the beach trip by raising the most money in a walkathon to promote academics, an official said. The students were bused back to Harlem hours after the tragedy.

Nicole, whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic, was a popular kid who wrote poetry for the school paper.

“She had lots of friends and she was always there when you needed her — to give you a hug when you were down,” said eighth-grader Serenity Suker.

The school, in an e-mail, said the student was caught in one of the beach’s powerful riptides, but several parents were quick to blame school administrators for the tragedy.

The school principal “sent a lone teacher out there with two interns . . . to supervise I don’t know how many kids,” said David Suker, 42, co-president of the parents association.

City officials said the three chaperones were one city teacher, another licensed teacher and an undergraduate college intern.

Education Department regulations say students would need signed consent forms for any trip involving swimming. It wasn’t immediately clear if those forms had been filed.

Mayor Bloomberg said it was too soon to point fingers.

“Let’s not go and rush and assign blame,” he said. “I think at this point what we have to focus on is maybe grieving and having a prayer for the child.”

With Michael J. Feeney and Joe Jackson