Ten years after the tragic day that became known as Black Sunday, former Fire Chief Tuffy Dixon said the chaos of June 8, 2003 is just as memorable now as it was then.
"From the time the calls started coming in, most of our fire equipment and firefighters stayed on the beach," Dixon remembered. "We didn't have a flag warning system or anything to make people aware of what the situation was. Firefighters had life vests they were using to go in and rescue people."
"I always likened it (no lifeguards) to having a big party on a balcony with no railings," he added. "At some point, people are going to fall off."
On that fateful day, Destin's firefighters had eight "near drownings" and one drowning. Marla Amos, 31, of Sellersburg, Ind., drowned at James Lee Park. All told, eight people had drowned or died from injuries related to that day between Okaloosa and Walton County.
A view from the beach
Felix Romero was a lifeguard with Sunset Beach Service on Okaloosa Island at the time, and he told The Log that there were no drownings on the Island, but he and his fellow lifeguard kept plenty busy.
"We were really big on preventative actions that day," Romero said. "We were constantly in and out of the tower doing the best we could to educate people."
"Even the best prevention wasn't good enough though, people kept going into the water," he said. "If you could pinpoint a day in this region, Black Sunday was the straw that broke the camels back, and they realized there was a problem. All of the beach safety organizations came out after that day and knew they had to get professional lifeguards out there."
Destin resident and local aerial photographer Scott Jackson lived in Gulf Pines near Sandestin and remembers seeing the Walton County Sheriff's Office helicopter flying above the beach, warning people to stay out of the water.
"It was a very anxious mood," he wrote in an email to The Log. "As I walked down the beach toward Elephant Walk I could see crowds of people gathered near the water. The conversations heard as I approached were all about the drownings and what was going on. The sound of helicopters flying low was ominous."
A call for help
Dixon said he began to work with the United States Lifesaving Association after Black Sunday and the organization came to Destin and held a training session to certify lifeguards.
"If it hadn't been for those firefighters, it probably would have been three to four years before we got our program up and running," Dixon said.
In the immediate aftermath of Black Sunday, Dixon said the fire district went out and purchased about 100 life saving rings that could be placed along the beaches to help distressed swimmers. He said the idea was to give people a tool to help someone if there were no firefighters in the area.
The Destin Beach Safety program began in 2004, and current Beach Safety Chief Joe D'Agostino came to Destin in 2005 to head up the program.
"There had been a push by the USLA to try and get professional lifeguard services along the Panhandle because of some drownings, but there hadn't been anything as alarming as Black Sunday," he said.
At the time, D'Agostino was working as a lifeguard in Fort Lauderdale and he remembers reading about the events of June 8 in newspapers and hearing about the tragedies on the television.
"There was one phrase I remember reading in the newspaper that has stuck with me," he said. "They were saying 'The drowning capital of the world.' "
"I thought to myself, it had to change," he added. "When you have a large number of people drowning, and it's all over the news and CNN, it's alarming. That's not an anomaly, something was wrong."
Lessons learned and moving forward
Looking back at the events of Black Sunday, D'Agostino told The Log that there were many valuable lessons learned by local officials.
"They learned that the service is needed, and the county, the TDC, the city and the fire district have all played a huge role in making sure what we do stays at the level it is now," he said. "Nobody wants to go back to that day, or anything near what happened that day again; it was just terrible."
While he is not sure what the beach safety program will look like 10-15 years down the road, D'Agostino said it was important that the program continues to move forward and evolve.
"I would hope as they continue to tear down condos to build high-rises on the beach, and increase the amount of people they are putting on the beach, we work together to make sure that we grow at the same time," he said. "We haven't had an increase, in staff or personnel, for about five years, but people haven't stopped building. More and more people are coming to the area, so we are going to need more lifeguards at some point."
For now, Destin's lifeguards patrol the beaches seven-days-a-week from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from the first Friday in March to the last Sunday in October. They patrol from Capt. Dave's on The Gulf to the east side of Henderson Beach State Park, then they pick back up at the western boundary of the park and patrol to the east jetty area and East Pass area, where there is a lifeguard on a jet ski. The patrol near the jetty is a newer, and was added due to the drownings of three people in the past few years in the area.
Looking back, Dixon told The Log that there are only two days in his entire fire career that he would never forget: Black Sunday and October 4, 1995 (Hurricane Opal).
"Talk about feeling overwhelmed and having the feeling of not knowing what to do," he said. "We could have had 200 more people out there; that's what it would have taken. It was chaos."
The following are those who drowned on June 8, 2003 or as a result of injuries sustained in a water incident.
• Marietta Yakstis, 62, of Illinois, at Eastern Lake
• David Che-Hsien Huang, 40, of Houston, at Dune Allen
• Curtis Corhan, 53, of Bunker Creek, at Blue Mountain Beach
• Larry LaMotte, 60, of Atlanta, at Grayton Beach
• Ken Brindley, 36, of Conway, Ark., at Grayton Beach; trying to save LaMotte
• Bob Heymeyer, 53, St. Louis, Mo., near Capt. Dave's restaurant
• Shalyn Cuadrado, 32, of Metairie, La., along Old 98
• Marla Amos, 31, of Sellersburg, Ind., at James Lee Park