By Lateef Mungin – CNN)
Hallandale Beach, FL., July 05, 2012 – Tomas Lopez says he never thought getting fired would make him so popular.
Since he was terminated as a lifeguard Monday for disregarding a protected area to save a swimmer, the 21-year-old from Florida said his phone has been ringing off the hook with journalists trying to get his side of the story. He is set to make an appearance on CNN’s “Erin Burnett Out Front” Thursday night.
“The reason I was fired is just ridiculous,” Lopez told CNN late Wednesday night. “It is a ridiculous rule, really. What was I supposed to do? Just let the guy drown?”
The incident occurred Monday at Hallandale Beach in southern Florida.
Orlando-based Jeff Ellis and Associates, the company Lopez worked for, said lifeguards cannot go beyond the perimeter of the beach they are responsible for overseeing.
But that day, a beachgoer rushed to Lopez’s lifeguard station to alert him to a man who was drowning.
The man was some 1,500 feet outside the company’s protection zone in an area where signs warn visitors to swim at their own risk, a supervisor with the company told CNN affiliate WPTV.
Even though he knew it was outside the company protection zone, Lopez ran into the ocean toward the struggling man and pulled him ashore.
The man, he said, had turned blue.
“He was having a lot of trouble breathing,” Lopez said.
A nurse at the beach tended to the victim until emergency medics arrived and rushed him off to a hospital.
It all happened so quickly that Lopez said he never got the man’s name and wonders if he is all right.
“It is killing me. I really want to know what happened to the guy,” he said.
WPTV reported Tuesday the man was admitted to the intensive care unit at Aventura Hospital.
After the near-drowning, Lopez said he was asked by his supervisor to complete an incident report.
“At that point I knew I was going to be fired. I knew had broken the rule,” Lopez said. “In those cases, we are supposed to call 911 and hope they get there in time.”
Company supervisor Susan Ellis told WPTV that Lopez was let go for violating company policy.
“We have liability issues and can’t go out of the protected area,” she said. “What he did was his own decision. He knew the company rules and did what he thought he needed to do.”
Since his firing, several other lifeguards have quit in protest, Lopez said.
On Wednesday, company owner Jeff Ellis told the Sun Sentinel newspaper the firm will interview managers and workers to see if safety protocols were violated.
“If we find our actions on the part of the leadership team were inappropriate, we will rectify it based upon the information that comes forward,” he told the paper.
Lopez said he started the $8.25-an-hour job four months ago and had hoped to continue working there when he goes to Broward College in the fall.
“Now I am just wondering how I am going to get my last check,” Lopez said. “I really don’t want to go back there to pick it up.”