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Surviving Rip Currents: Part 1 of 2

By Stephen Meador

Wrightsville Beach, NC – When Sandee LaMotte left Atlanta last summer for a family vacation in the Florida panhandle, she never dreamed she would return home a widow. On the afternoon of June 8, Sandee's family was enjoying the beach while she caught up on housework. Suddenly, her two children burst through the door and told her that their father was in trouble.

[LaMotte] So I rushed out the door, and as soon as I got outside I heard the helicopters, and I saw the crowd of people because we weren't that far from the beach, and I knew. So I started running as fast as I can. By the time I got out there some rescue people were out in the water, I could see two people floating out there and I could tell one of them was Larry because of his blue trunks.

Larry LaMotte drowned trying to save his 12-year old son, Ryan, who had been caught in a rip current. Rip currents flow away from the shoreline and are usually harmless. However, under the right conditions they can become fast and strong, carrying swimmers out through the surf zone, causing panic and exhaustion. Rip currents are responsible for more than 100 drowning deaths every year and are the leading safety hazard for beachgoers.

[LaMotte] As I was driving back with the Sheriff's deputy after being told that there was no way they could save Larry, back to the house to tell my children that their father was dead, the radio started crackling and there was all of this information coming through and then two ambulances come whizzing by, and I turned to the deputy and I said, 'What is going on?' and he said, 'Oh, ma'am, by the time we pulled your husband out of the water there had already been four deaths along the coast here. It's been the worst day in history on the Florida coast and it's not over yet.'

Six people, including a 36-year old father of two who tried to rescue Larry LaMotte, drowned that Sunday along Walton County beaches in Florida.

As a former news correspondent for CNN, Larry LaMotte had been through earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, and riots.

[LaMotte] He was in lots and lots of dangerous situations, you know, and to actually die by a rip current it seems so bizarrely strange, weird, unbelievable.

Sandee was in Wrightsville Beach recently to take part in a national rip current awareness campaign. Sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States Lifesaving Association, the campaign is part of National Beach Safety Week.

Wrightsville Beach is no stranger to rip currents and their tragic consequences. Two years ago, 22-year old Crystal Swart and her 17-year old sister Marina were swimming at Wrightsville, along with two other friends. When Marina was swept out by a rip current, Crystal and her friend Joy tried to help her. Jo Ann Swart is Crystal's and Marina's mother.

[Swart] When they stepped on the sand bar to go in and check on Marina, they also got caught in the riptide, and those two girls held hands and at some point Crystal just said she couldn't stay up any more and they were struggling, they were trying to go in to the shore, and so they let go.

Joy made it back to the beach on her own, but Crystal had to be rescued and resuscitated by emergency personnel. She was on life support for two days before she died.

Although yellow caution flags were flying that day, Jo Ann said one crucial piece of information was lacking.

[Swart] They knew what the yellow flags meant as well as the other people, they just did not know what to do when caught in the rip tide.

Teaching the public how to handle rip currents is a big part of the public awareness campaign. Bud Woodrum is the lifeguard captain for Wrightsville Beach.

[Woodrum] The best thing to do if you're caught in a rip current is, number one, don't panic. If you panic, you're just adding to your trouble. Wave your hands and scream for help. You can scream and not panic. Try to get somebody's attention. If that doesn't work, swim parallel to shore. Swim sideways out of the rip current. Use the existing longshore current or the wind, always swim with the direction of the wind. That will aid you in getting out of the current.

After a difficult year of grieving, Jo Ann Swart is creating something positive from the tragedy. She wrote letters to local beach officials, urging them to use signs and pamphlets to help educate people about rip currents. Their response was encouraging, so she's taking her message to area schoolchildren.

[Swart] If they grow up with knowing that information, just like you grow up knowing about stop, drop, and roll with a fire, or if you live on the coast, you know what to do with hurricanes, so if you hear about rip tide warnings, whether it's in the paper or on the TV station when they're talking about the riptides, you need to be told what to do, and that's the piece that's missing.

Sandee LaMotte is also trying to create something positive from her family's tragedy in Florida, but admittedly she's angry. The LaMottes knew nothing about rip currents and didn't understand the red flags that were flying that day. Even as the disastrous day progressed, Walton County officials didn't close their beaches. And unlike adjacent Volusia County, Walton County didn't have lifeguards. They still don't.

[LaMotte] I'm very disappointed with the reactions of many of the coastal communities, to these deaths that are happening in their backyards. They really have the attitude that they want to turn a blind eye to this, and that it's not their responsibility at all to provide protection in the form of lifeguards and make sure that everyone who visits their community gets adequate safety information.

Like Jo Ann Swart, Sandee LaMotte sees public education as the key to preventing tragedy. She's trying to have a law passed that would require beach communities to provide rip current safety information to visitors.

[LaMotte] I'm happy to work with anyone who wants to work with me, to try to implement safety and make this a positive so that tourism doesn't suffer and actually improves, so that people's vacations at the beach are improved, and that people don't die. That's really the bottom line. There's no sense. You're coming on a family vacation, you shouldn't go home in a body bag.

For WHQR public radio in Wilmington, I'm Steve Meador.