Deadly holiday at Carolina beaches sparks concerns about rip currents

slyttle@charlotteobserver.com ahelms@charlotteobserver.comJuly 9, 2013 

  • Holiday drownings These people died on Carolinas beaches from July 3-5. Sunset Beach

    Maryanne Galway, 55, of Waxhaw drowned after being caught in a rip current July 3. District Court Judge Mitchell McLean, 54, of Wilkes County died trying to save her.

    Ocean Isle Beach

    William Nicolaro, 72, of Palm Harbor, Fla., drowned July 3.

    Holden Beach

    Randall Joyce, 57, of Pfafftown drowned July 4 in a rip current.

    Myrtle Beach

    Richard Butler, 57, of Laurinburg, died July 4 in rough waters off 72nd Avenue North.

    North Myrtle Beach

    Mark Baucom, 50, from the Anson County town of Polkton, was killed July 4 in the surf off 15th Avenue South.

    Hilton Head

    Bob Mann, 69, from Chardon, Ohio, died July 5 when he was swept away by a rip current while walking in the water in Calibogue Sound at Hilton Head.

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 North Carolina 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.

Two other drownings happened just south of that county, along the Myrtle Beach, S.C., coast. The seventh was farther south, on Hilton Head Island, S.C.

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 usually are a low risk.

Town officials from Sunset and Holden beaches, Brunswick County towns that also had drownings, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Danger builds

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 back to shore.

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 McLean, 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.

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.”

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

“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. Mark Baucom, 50, from the Anson County town of Polkton, drowned in the surf off 15th Avenue South in North Myrtle Beach. S.C..

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.

The lifeguard question “is a manpower issue,” Smith said. With 7 miles to cover and swimmers present from sunrise to sunset, the coverage could be challenging, she said.

But Chris Brewster, president of the California-based U.S. Lifesaving Association, said no government covers every stretch of beach. Instead, guards are stationed in high-traffic areas, and tourists are informed which beaches have guards.

Hiring lifeguards raises questions of liability and insurance. 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 responsible 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.

Helms: 704-358-5033

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