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Fired Hallandale Beach Lifeguard Honored By City

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A former Hallandale Beach lifeguard who was fired after he left his assigned zone to help save a drowning man was honored Monday.

Tomas Lopez and several others who helped in the rescue were presented with the key to the city Monday by Hallandale Beach city officials.

"It doesn't unlock this big door, but it is the key to the city," Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper said.

Lopez's story, which was followed nationwide, began last Monday, when a person came up to lifeguard tower and told Lopez there was a person, who turned out to be Maksim Samartsev of Estonia, in trouble out in the water.

"A guest come up to me and told me someone's drowning," Lopez said.

Lopez took off down the beach but by the time he Lopez arrived, several people had pulled Samartsev to shore. Lopez said the man appeared to be semi-conscious and had water in his lungs. He and an off-duty nurse rendered aid until paramedics arrived. That victim was released from the hospital Thursday afternoon.

After the rescue, Lopez said his supervisor asked him to fill out an incident report and then fired him for leaving his assigned area.

The rescue was performed about 1,500 feet south of the protective boundaries set by Lopez's employer. Other lifeguards watched Lopez's area during the rescue and were on the phone with 911 operators during the incident.

Hallandale Beach has outsourced its lifeguards since 2003. The city pays Jeff Ellis Management about $334,000 a year to provide lifeguards.

After reviewing the incident Lopez and several other lifeguards who were either fired or quit, in a show of support, were offered their jobs back. All have declined the offer.

Those lifeguards were given a standing ovation as well Monday for supporting Lopez's actions. Four firefighters who helped keep Samartsev alive.

"It's a big honor. I don't believe I deserve the key to the city," Lopez said. " All of guards would have done the same thing. I think all of us deserve this. All I did was do what I was suppose to do."

Monday was also the first day that Samartsez met the team who saved him.

"I would like to say a big thanks to this man (Lopez). He saved my life," Samartsev said.

Hallandale Mayor Joy Cooper said the decision outsource lifeguards was made out of concern for coverage. The city didn't feel they had enough certified lifeguards to protect the beaches and pools.

Although she said safety was always the top priority, money also seemingly played a role. The city reportedly saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by outsourcing the management of lifeguards.

But, Cooper says what made sense then, might not make sense for the anymore. She's asked the city manager to look into the contract and explore options for hiring their own lifeguards.

Monday afternoon, Jeff Ellis Management informed Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee Crichton that the lifeguard company will not seek another contract to manage the city's lifeguards.

"I want to personally apologize to the Mayor, City Commission and citizens of Hallandale Beach for the regrettable incident surrounding the recent termination of our lifeguard employee, Tomas Lopez," Ellis wrote.. "Despite our record of safety, the mishandling of the Tomas Lopez incident has undermined public confidence.We want to do the right thing and enable the City to move forward with a new vendor."

Ellis said his company would continue their operations with Hallandale Beach until the city can find a replacement.

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