Nineteen-year-old Keith Pinto was known for being able to light up a room with a smile and a joke.
But it was memories of the Berkeley Township lifeguard that lit up White Sands Beach on Tuesday as hundreds of friends, family, community members, and lifeguards from neighboring beaches raised candles in his honor and tearfully hugged, mourning the loss of a vibrant life cut short in a fatal lightning strike the day before.
Huddled in the sand near the base of a toppled lifeguard stand-turned-memorial as dusk fell on the Shore, they lifted their flames: “To Keith.”
Photographs, flower bouquets, crosses, and Berkeley Township Ocean Rescue T-shirts blanketed the ground near the guard stand amid a sea of prayer candles. A cross made from shells lay in the sand nearby.
A rising sophomore at Ocean County College and 2020 graduate of Toms River North High School who ran track and cross country, Pinto was remembered as selfless and with the natural ability to make others smile.
Looking out at the hundreds who showed up on the sand for the candlelit vigil, his older brother, Tyler, said: “I’m sure he’s grinning from ear-to-ear right now watching down over everyone.”
“Anybody that knows him knows he’s just a big goofball and loved to have fun,” Tyler Pinto said. “Celebrate Keith. Don’t mourn him. He wouldn’t want everybody crying over him. That’s just not the kind of person he is.”
The lifeguard was on duty Monday afternoon when a fast-moving storm materialized and a bolt of lightning struck, killing Keith Pinto and injuring seven others, including three other guards. The seven survivors were transported to local hospitals to be treated, and investigation into the incident is ongoing, Berkeley Township police said. The township’s beaches are closed to swimmers through Thursday to give lifeguards the days off, and crisis counselors are available to the staff, police said.
Joe Latronico, Keith Pinto’s teammate of three years in the Bayville men’s softball league, was outside working a landscaping job in Toms River on Monday when he said he watched a bolt come down from the seemingly clear sky. From 10 miles away, he said, the loud boom rattled his chest.
“It came out of nowhere,” Latronico said. “I felt it, it shook me. It was like an explosion.”
Hours later, he received the news about Keith. An “all-around athlete,” Pinto on Sunday had hit the game-winning run for their softball team, Under Pressure, Latronico said.
“He was the hero on Sunday, and Monday he’s gone,” he said. “It doesn’t feel real. He was the nicest boy.”
Meteorologists said radar shows the storm materialized over the Seaside Heights beach in minutes. The odds of being struck by lightning are rare, and the odds of dying from a strike slimmer. The lifeguard’s death was the ninth known lightning fatality of the year in the United States, and the second in New Jersey, according to John Jensenius of the National Lightning Safety Council.
The strike marked the second death of a Jersey Shore lifeguard within weeks. Earlier in August, Norman V. Inferrera III, a 16-year-old rookie lifeguard with the Cape May Beach Patrol, died after he was knocked unconscious when a wave flipped his boat.
Kevin Pinto, Keith’s twin brother, said he and Keith did everything together, including lifeguarding for the last four summers. Through tears Tuesday night, he thanked the group for gathering on the beach.
“It’s going to be tough, but he’s going to be watching over us all, laughing at the stuff we do,” Kevin Pinto said. “It’s just crazy, you just have to live every day to the fullest, you never know when you or your family will be gone.”
Staff writer Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article.