A rip current led to their daughter’s death. Now, they’ll devote their lives to saving others.

‘They don’t have to die,’ says father of student killed by rip current

Suzi and John Merical lost their daughter Paige a week after she was pulled from the ocean at Emerald Isle in April. The loss has pushed them to launch an educational campaign about rip current safety, called "Don't Fight the Rip."
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Suzi and John Merical lost their daughter Paige a week after she was pulled from the ocean at Emerald Isle in April. The loss has pushed them to launch an educational campaign about rip current safety, called "Don't Fight the Rip."

Paige Merical was a careful and deliberate driver, but her parents, Suzi and John, didn’t trust the other people on the road. So they were relieved when Suzi got Paige’s text saying she and her friend Ian Lewis had arrived safely at Emerald Isle for an afternoon at the beach on April 19.

An hour later, Suzi’s phone rang, showing a call from Paige.

“I knew something was wrong,” Suzi said. Paige was a texter, not a talker.

Suzi answered, and heard a stranger’s voice saying Paige — her only child, her daughter, her whole world — had been pulled from the ocean, drowning, and paramedics were trying to breathe life into her body as she lay on the beach.

Paige? Drowning? It made no sense to Suzi. Her daughter was a natural athlete, a powerful young woman who could wield a tennis racket with great force.

Paige Merical’s graduation portraits sit behind a glass window in her parents’ living room in Wake Forest on Thursday, May 30, 2019. She would be graduating from Wake Forest High School in June. In April, she and her classmate, Ian Lewis, were caught in a rip current while visiting Emerald Isle and neither one survived. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

As a swimmer, Paige outpaced every competitor. All she had to do was catch a glimpse of someone closing in on her, and she would go into overdrive, launching herself through the water.

“She could swim like a fish,” Suzi said. “It didn’t worry us in the least about her going in the ocean. I wish I had known then what I know now.”

What she didn’t know, and what she fears not near enough people know, is that it doesn’t matter how strong a swimmer someone is. Under the right conditions, a rip current sends water rushing away from shore faster than the fastest human swimmer can paddle.

There is no fighting that kind of current, Suzi says, because fighting leads to fatigue, and fatigue leads to drowning.

Paige, 17, and Ian, 18, longtime friends and classmates from Wake Forest High School, both died after going into the ocean that day. The sea was unusually rough, with waves 6 to 9 feet high. It was spring break, warm enough to be on the beach but too early for lifeguards to patrol the strand at Emerald Isle or for the town to post the red flags that conditions likely would have called for that day, indicating a high risk of rip currents.

Paige Merical’s ashes sit in a gold box at her home in Wake Forest, alongside plaster molds of her parents hands holding hers before she died in April. She was caught in a rip current while visiting Emerald Isle. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

After she was pulled from the water, Paige Merical was hospitalized on life support. She died a week later.

It took four days to find Ian’s body.

Don’t Fight the Rip

It’s been more than five weeks since the accident, and the Mericals are still reeling from the blow. They don’t think they’ll ever really recover from the loss of their daughter, but they’re determined to do what they can to keep other families from knowing this kind of grief.

Next week, Suzi, a retired teacher, and John, a retired sales manager, will officially launch an education campaign called “Don’t Fight the Rip.” It will start June 5 with a fundraiser at a restaurant in Wake Forest, 150 miles from the ocean that took their girl. Charlie’s Kabob Grill, where Paige loved to eat, will donate a portion of the day’s profits to support “Don’t Fight the Rip.”

On June 9, the Mericals will hold an event at Sugar Magnolia Cafe on White Street in Wake Forest. A live band will perform, and there will be T-shirts for sale printed with advice on how to survive a rip current, first by learning how to recognize where they occur.

In North Carolina, that’s most often in the calm-looking water between breaking waves near sandbars.

Suzi now believes the advice she always gave Paige about rip currents was wrong.

“What we always told her in the past was what we had read: Swim parallel to the beach and you’ll get out of it.”

But since Paige’s death, the Mericals have done a lot of research, and they now believe it’s dangerous for people to think they can swim out of a rip current, even sideways. The best advice, Suzi said, is:

  • Don’t panic. Relax. Remember the current will take you out, but not down.

  • Flip onto your back if you need to and float to avoid getting fatigued.

  • Above all, don’t try to fight the current. When it stops pulling you out, if you’re not too tired, you can swim parallel to the beach to a place where it’s safe to swim back to shore. Or, face the beach, wave your arms and shout for help.

At the kickoff, the Mericals plan to display inflatable wristbands sold on the internet for as little as $20 that can serve as emergency flotation devices. Those who are interested will be able to sign up to be organ donors, so that if the worst does happen, they can help save other people’s lives.

“Paige was an organ donor,” her mother points out, whose gifts are now helping five other people enjoy better lives.

A campaign on the road

They’re still working out the details, but after the kickoff, the Mericals plan to take their campaign on the road, talking to swimmers at pools and on beaches up and down the North Carolina coast.

Suzi can’t not tell the story, she said. Recently, she overheard someone at a department store talking about an upcoming beach trip.

“I told her who I was, and I encouraged her to take a flotation device with her,” Suzi said. “I told her to please not go into the water without one.”

The Mericals hope to talk to civic groups at the beach, and to condo associations and anyone who rents beach houses. They want to talk with the government leaders in beach communities, to advocate for more lifeguards, additional warning flags and more aggressive beach patrols on days when conditions are too dangerous for swimmers to be in the ocean.

“We can’t guarantee anything,” Suzi said, “but we feel like we have to try. This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life — try to teach people to be safe in the water.

“If we can prevent one mom from getting the phone call I got that day, maybe we will feel like it wasn’t all for nothing.”

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.