As a lifelong, Gulf Coast surfer, I was out in the water that day behind Sea Oats Motel in Destin. The swell was large enough to break on the outside sandbar which is pretty rare during the summer months. I paddled out to see many fellow neighborhood surfers had already been out there for awhile. After about 20 minutes two of them decided to head back to shore to take a break.
As they were heading in, I could see both of them were off their surfboards in the shore break trying to get a large man out of the water. I rushed into shore to see the man lying on his back in the sand where bystanders had already started CPR. A beach service attendant came by and just keep saying, “I told that guy to stay out of the water. I told him to stay out!”
The man’s family was standing there screaming and crying as water flowed out of his mouth. It was complete chaos. The medics arrived and continued working on him even as they loaded him into a waiting medevac helicopter that had landed right on Scenic Highway 98.
I wasn’t a lifeguard back in 2003. I had just gotten out of the Air Force after many years of service as a pilot, decided to stay in Destin and started my own business. After what I saw on Black Sunday, I really wanted to see the beaches made safer and even had a few letters published in The Destin Log calling for trained, dedicated lifeguards on our beaches.
Destin Fire stepped up in 2004 and started a lifeguard program that was manned by their own fire fighters and medics. It wasn’t till 2005 that lifeguard training and jobs were opened to the public. I attended the training and got the job with the intent of just working weekends, but soon found myself working full-time... and loving it.
After two years guarding with Destin Beach Safety, I dropped to part time, so I could fly medevac helicopters. In January of this year, I resigned to take my current job as the Lifeguard Supervisor for SWFD. While most of the events of June 8, 2003 devastated lives, it has inspired me to make a difference.
Last summer I was guarding at the beach when a woman came up to me and said she was in town for the anniversary of her family member who had drowned nine years ago.
I looked at the date on my watch and saw that it was June 8th.
We talked for bit and I told her my story from that day. She thanked me and was glad to see lifeguards are now on the beaches.
Chris Lambert is a Destin resident and Lifeguard Supervisor for South Walton Fire District.