Officials in Brunswick County will consider adding beach warning flags and lifeguards after a July Fourth holiday that saw seven people drown in rip currents along the Carolinas coast – nearly twice the number of deaths in an average year because of the dangerous water condition.
One victim was a Fort Mill, S.C., school employee, and another was a judge who tried to save her. The victims also included a Catholic bishop and an Ohio man who was nearing the end of a weeklong family reunion.
“If it brings everyone to the table to try and help the public, that’s at least taking something positive from a tragedy,” said Anthony Marzano, director of emergency services in Brunswick County, where four of the deaths occurred. The area is a popular vacation destination for Charlotte-area residents.
Two other drownings happened just south of that county, along the Myrtle Beach coast. The seventh was farther south, on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
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A surge of water coming in from storms and tourists arriving for the Fourth of July holiday created a death toll that shocked longtime coastal residents.
“After we’ve had this rash of things happening, anything’s on the table,” said Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith, a lifelong resident who said she can’t recall the last ocean drowning in her town, which has 7 miles of coastline.
The Myrtle Beach area has lifeguards, but Brunswick County, with six municipalities responsible for more than 40 miles of coast, does not. The Brunswick County beaches also don’t have flags to warn visitors when there’s a high risk for rip currents, which can unexpectedly pull swimmers out to sea.
“It’s always been kind of ‘swim at your own risk,’ ” said Smith, who says the gently sloping beach and calm waters generally keep the risk low.
Town officials from Sunset and Holden beaches, Brunswick County towns that also had drownings, could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
The risk was high on Wednesday and Thursday, when the North Carolina deaths occurred, Marzano said. But visitors would have had to go online or watch local TV to know that.
“As a tourist, you’re not going to spend a lot of time watching the news while you’re on vacation,” Marzano said. “We don’t see a lot of problems with the local public. It’s the transient population.”
Chris Brewster, president of the California-based U.S. Lifesaving Association, said the Brunswick County scenario sounds like a case of “irresponsible local governments,” which promote profitable tourism but “are unwilling to provide safety services that are necessary.”
It often takes tragedy to bring change, says Brewster, whose group is a nonprofit association of beach lifeguards and water rescuers. “The biggest mistake is to have these kind of incidents and take no action.”
The unusually high number of rip current deaths resulted from the same weather pattern responsible in part for the rainy weather inland across the Carolinas, one meteorologist said Monday.
Dave Loewenthal of the National Weather Service office in Wilmington said a high pressure system over the Atlantic allowed a southeast wind to blow for hundreds of miles before reaching the Carolinas coast.
“We call that a long fetch,” he said. “The waves aren’t super big, but there’s a lot of water coming in.”
Scientists say rip currents are nature’s way of returning water from the shore to the open ocean. Small channels develop from the shore to deeper water, pulling the water out at speeds up to 6 mph – faster than an Olympian can swim, according to Marzano.
Signs at beach access points warn swimmers how to respond: Swim parallel to the beach to escape the currents, rather than risk exhaustion trying to fight the current back to shore. But that’s hard to remember in a panic situation, Marzano says.
The first three drownings came Wednesday, as the holiday began. William Nicolaro, a 72-year-old Apostolic Catholic bishop from Florida, drowned while spending time with family members at Ocean Isle Beach.
The same day, two people died at Sunset Beach, which borders Ocean Isle on the southwest. Maryanne Galway, a 55-year-old school attendance counselor from Waxhaw, began experiencing trouble in the water. Mitchell McClean, 54, a District Court judge from Wilkes County since 1998, jumped into the surf to help. Both people died. Galway’s husband, who also tried to help, was caught in the current but survived.
During a 5-minute 911 call obtained by the Observer, a woman tells the dispatcher that a man had just been pulled from the water. That man said two others were still “in the water drowning,” according to the caller.
Minutes later she reports that two people are being pulled out of the water.
“They’re giving CPR on the woman,” she said. “The woman is not breathing.”
No guards to help
“Good Samaritan” deaths are common in rip currents, experts say. While trained lifeguards have flotation equipment, amateur rescuers often get themselves in trouble, even when the original victim survives.
“Most of the time, if you just float, it will kick you to safety,” said UNC Wilmington professor Spencer Rogers of N.C. Sea Grant, a coastal research and education program. “That’s why the original victims often make it back.”
Attorney Dennis Joyce of Wilkesboro told WGHP-TV he isn’t surprised that McClean risked his life trying to save someone: “He died the way he lived.”
Solid numbers on rip current rescues and deaths are hard to come by, with no single agency responsible. Beaches with lifeguards report data to the Lifesaving Association, but those without do not. Brewster said the vast majority of ocean rescues are caused by rip currents, and deaths in those situations are rare.
Ten North Carolina and South Carolina beaches, including Nags Head, Wrightsville, Kure and Kill Devil, reported 3,875 rip current rescues from 2010 to 2012. Rip currents drowned three people on unguarded beaches and two on guarded beaches during that time, data show. More than 34 million people attended those beaches over the three years.
A 14-year study conducted by the College of DuPage, in Glen Ellyn, Ill., found an average of 3.14 rip current-related deaths annually in North Carolina and 0.93 in South Carolina. Those numbers echo what Marzano reported from talking to his staff: The two-day holiday brought more deaths than they’d normally see in an entire summer.
Smith and Marzano say lifeguards might have averted some or all of the Brunswick County deaths, which continued on Thursday. At Holden Beach, northeast of Ocean Isle, 57-year-old Randall Joyce of Pfafftown drowned in a rip current. His wife and two adult children were rescued.
“It’s challenging to be an emergency responder,” Marzano said. “You get there after the fact.”
Response to tragedy
Smith said all Ocean Isle firefighters are trained in water rescue, but they’re not stationed on the beaches.
“I would think your chances are improved” with lifeguards, Smith said, “but there’s no guarantee.”
Indeed, the holiday deaths continued in South Carolina, in an area that has lifeguards. In Myrtle Beach, Richard Butler, 57, of Laurinburg, died in rough waters off 72nd Avenue North. And 50-year-old Mark Baucom, from the Anson County town of Polkton, was killed in the surf off 15th Avenue South in North Myrtle Beach.
The seventh victim was reported Friday. Bob Mann, a 69 year-old visiting from Ohio, died when he was swept away by a rip current while walking in the water in Calibogue Sound at Hilton Head.
In Brunswick County, emergency officials immediately printed out instructions on how to escape rip currents and gave them to owners of rental properties. Smith, the Ocean Isle mayor, is among the property owners who distributed them during the holiday weekend.
Smith said the Ocean Isle Town Council will discuss beach safety measures at its regular meeting Tuesday, though the issue isn’t likely to be settled that quickly.
The lifeguard question “is a manpower issue,” she said. With 7 miles to cover and swimmers present from sunrise to sunset, the coverage could be challenging, she said.
But Brewster said that’s a typical excuse. No government covers every stretch of beach, he said. Instead, guards are stationed in high-traffic areas, and tourists are informed which beaches have guards. “What you do is provide reasonable amounts of safe alternatives.”
Hiring lifeguards also can raise questions of liability and insurance. For instance, the Town of Carolina Beach is being sued by the family of a 19-year-old who drowned there in June 2011. The suit alleges that the town is reponsible for the young man’s death because lifeguards were sent home when the storm hit and the nearest chair wasn’t staffed.
Marzano said he’s heard from officials from other coastal municipalities who plan to discuss safety improvements.
“It’s a hot topic for discussion,” Marzano said, “and it should be.”
Staff writers Gavin Off and Elisabeth Arriero and staff researcher Maria David contributed.