Tragedy by the Sea 

A Dreadful Incident Occurred Which Changed a Couple's Life Forever

Technical Details
Camera: Rolleiflex
Film: Kodak 120 roll film
Lens: 80 mm

Shutter & Aperture: 1/250th @ f16 

On April 2, 1954, a gruesome accident occurred, which changed Mr. and Mrs. John McDonald’s life forever. It was a delightful morning on Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles. There was a calm, warm breeze that floated off of the Pacific, a golden sun, and the relaxing sounds of the crashing surf. Photographer John Gaunt was relaxing near his beach house when someone yelled, “Something’s happening on the beach!” Instinctively, Gaunt grabbed his Rolleiflex camera and rushed over to see a horrified couple clutching each other. The couple was tightly holding onto each other while moving back and forth. Their body language told Gaunt a story that tied a knot in his stomach. Someone must be lost. Gaunt quickly whipped out his Rolleiflex camera and snapped a shot of the couple from about two hundred feet away.

Later, it was revealed that the McDonald’s nineteen-month-old son, Michael, was playing in the safety of the shallows. The surf, suddenly aggressive, reached out and sucked Michael away. None of the adults could do anything except wait and watch. Later in the day, the child’s lifeless body was found on the beach a mile away.

When one looks at the picture, they can see how Mrs. McDonald’s face is distraught, distressed, flustered, and frantic. She is tightly clutching Mr. McDonald’s shirt while he scans the water for his son. Adults should learn a lesson from this fateful event. Parents should stay with their children, especially if the children are inexperienced in swimming. By publishing this picture, Gaunt was able to teach many parents and elders a lesson for everyone's safety.

Gaunt, not only won a Pulitzer for this picture, but also an Associated Press Managing Editor's Award and a prize from the California-Nevada Associated Press. Gaunt served in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. In his early years, he studied at the Compton College and graduated from the University of Southern California and graduated with a degree in zoology (the study of animal behavior, structure, and classification). Gaunt also ran the Los Angeles Times from October 1950 to 1988.

The funeral for nineteen-month-old Michael McDonald will be held at the Hermosa Beach Cemetery on Saturday, April 3, 1954 at 9:00 am.

Sunday evening, I interviewed the McDonald family to get their side of the story.

1st Interview with John and Mary McDonald.

Me: What were you doing early Friday morning?

Mary: I made breakfast for Michael and Sarah.

Me: You have two children?

Mary: Yes.

Me: John, can you tell me more about what happened when you got to the beach?

John: Well, after we all finished breakfast, Sarah wanted to show Michael how to build sand castles. Michael was eager, so Sarah picked him up and scampered to the beach. Usually we are fine with them going ahead because it's close to our beach house. Today, we had the whole beach to ourselves. It was empty because of some sporting event in the city. When we walked after them, we saw Michael finding sea shells. He started to wade into the water. I saw Sarah piling up sand by herself. We thought it was fine until... (trails off)

Me: Can you tell me the details of the incident?

Mary: When we realized that Michael had gone missing, I ran around screaming till my voice gave out. John went back to check the house for Michael. Once John had left, I saw Michael far out in the water. I screamed but I felt like no sound came out. I waved my arms, but they felt like lead.I didn't know what to do! (Sniffs)

John: When I came back from the house, I saw my wife hysterical for the first time. The first thing that my wife did was run up to me and grab my shirt so tightly I thought that it would rip off. She was pointed far into the water and babbled and screamed things about Michael. I looked far out, but then I... I didn't see anything.

Mary: By then, I had dropped to my knees and felt that all hope was lost.

Mary starts to cry.

John: I still remember that one moment of realization. I had asked my wife, "Michael...? He's... drowned...?" The beach had become dead silent. The only sound was the deadly and guilty waves. The silence was too loud that it was unbearable to hear.

Me: What did you feel like when you saw his body?

John: ...

Mary: I... I... We can't answer anymore.

After I found out that the McDonald family had another child, I quickly got in contact with her. While I interview her, she is very shy in the beginning. But rapidly, the conversation gets heated as her temper rises.

2nd Interview with Sarah (the daughter).

Me: How old are you?

Sarah: 14.

Me: Okay. How do you feel about what happened on Friday?

Sarah: I don't know.

Me: Are you confused?

Sarah: Yeah, I guess. I feel like it's my fault.

Me: Oh dear! How so?

Sarah: Well first, I was the one who insisted that Michael build a sandcastle!

Me: That doesn't really count!

Sarah: Then I told him that we should decorate it with seashells! At first, he didn't want to, but I managed to convince him! This is all my fault! All my fault... How could I have done this? How could I have been so irresponsible?

By now, Sarah had started to rise out of her seat.

Me: I'm sorry, I really am. Do you want to tell me about it?

Sarah: My life is horrible! I have guilt weighing me down every second. This guilt is going to stick with me my entire life. It'll be a scar that will never be gone, that can never be covered up. Every corner I turn, every route I take, that scar will be there to haunt me my entire life! Not only when I'm awake though, but also in my sleep. I dream every night about Michael. I dream that I see him in the water and I try to run to him. But it's like my legs are lead and then I start to run out of breath and I find out I haven't moved an inch. I am scarred and ruined, and will never be able to enjoy life ever again! I- wait... Why are you asking me these questions? You're not trying to comfort me! You could care less about my family! You only want the information for your benefit! I feel like this interview is intruding my private space. This incident was more of a family issue and could have been dealt with without the media and public! No more questions!!! (door slams)

Me: Whew...


Mary Jones: This photograph is totally unethical!
          Billy Burns (reply): Why? John Gaunt was only doing his job.

          Mary Jones (reply): He had no right to take a picture of the couple when they were having a personal ordeal! It is definitely unethical.

Gillian Jackson: Mary Jones is right! The McDonald's didn't even know Gaunt personally. How would you like it if someone you didn't know took a picture when you were mourning?

          John Johnson (reply): NO! Gaunt was only doing his job as a photographer. And by the way, Gaunt knew a person who knew the couple.

Lucy Lane: Well, Sarah told Bethany during the interview that she thought that it was invading her space. Sarah thought that it was a personal matter and that she didn't feel like it concerned the media.

          Mary Jones (reply): I definitely agree!

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