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Jonesha Sawyers, a teenage visitor from Kentucky, stood at the shoreline of the beach on Okaloosa Island Wednesday afternoon during a brief break from the rain. She jumped back as the waves ebbed closer and closer to her toes, daring not to get even ankle-deep in the water.

Double red flags flew behind her, and a pair of lifeguards kept a watchful eye from their tower. 

"I'm kind of sad cause I feel like I can't do anything," she said of not being able to get in the water. "We came here to swim, but I don't want anything to happen."

Sawyers, along with the thousands of other visitors to Okaloosa and Walton county beaches this week, was staying away from the water after rough surf and severe weather prompted officials to close the Gulf to swimmers.

Unfortunately, not everybody was as cautious. 

Tuesday, with red flags flying, Destin Beach Safety lifeguards rescued nine people from the water. One of those people, a 49-year-old father from Georgia, was pronounced dead at the Destin Emergency Room. His cause of death was an apparent drowning.

In Walton County, at least a dozen people had to be pulled from the water. On Okaloosa Island, four people were saved.

They were warned

Joe D’Agostino, beach safety chief for the Destin Fire Control District, said Tuesday’s drowning was a tragedy, but his lifeguards had done everything they could to prevent it. 

D’Agostino said the victim and his family were informed not to go in the water “by lifeguards multiple times, and by beach service at least once.”

The man drowned after trying to help his daughter and her friend, who were struggling in the surf.

In fact, lifeguards in Okaloosa and Walton counties had made thousands of “public contacts” Tuesday, which involved speaking with people on the beach directly and informing them about the flag system, the dangerous surf and rip currents.

“We would point to the location of the rip currents, which on a day like yesterday there could be a rip current every hundred yards,” D’Agostino said. “We would explain to them the weather phenomenon that occurred, and that the currents would be persistent and to stay out of them.”

South Walton Fire District Beach Safety Chief David Vaughan said his lifeguards take a proactive approach to public contacts, starting off by actually acknowledging the visitors’ desire to get in the water and thanking them for visiting the beach, but firmly informing them that it is too dangerous to go swimming.

“We are the least popular people on the beach, but we’re okay with that. We have to be okay with that,” Vaughan said. “Because I would rather you be mad at me as you go home safely (than not go home at all).”

“They just make mistakes”

Despite flags and lifeguards telling them not to get in the water, hundreds of people did get in the water Tuesday, some of whom had to be rescued. As for the man who drowned, D’Agostino said though it can be easy for people to blame the victim, the responsibility for education and prevention actually falls on the community at large.

“To point the finger at the individual, I find that to be morally unacceptable,” he said. “We as a community need to be a little bit better at helping these people. They just make mistakes, you know.” 

Vaughan also said he wouldn’t “assign blame” to a person who gets in the water despite warnings.

Okaloosa County Beach Safety Director Rich Huffnagle, whose lifeguards patrol Okaloosa Island, said it can be difficult to keep people from getting in the water if that's what they have made up their minds to do.

“I think that people are here to enjoy the water. That’s the bottom line, and for us the bottom line is their safety,” he said. “And I think it’s just that, really, until they get educated, they’re thinking the environment is safe.”

When it’s not enough

A handful of people every year pay the ultimate price for defying the warnings. When that happens, it falls on the lifeguards to pull bodies out of the water.

That's something beach safety officials say is part of the job, but not something they ever want to have to do.

“No one wants to see any fatalities,” D’Agostino said. “We’re humans and at the end of the day, we go back in and do our job. But there’s definitely emotion involved with that.”

He said all lifeguards undergo “Critical Incident Stress Debriefing” after a rescue or drowning incident, not unlike what firefighters or other emergency personnel undergo.

Vaughan, who had to pull a body out of the water during a double drowning search and rescue in June 2016, said that lifeguards are encouraged to seek help and talk to someone after an incident. Still, the psychological effects can be difficult to deal with.

“We had an incident last year, which was almost exactly the same scenario (as Tuesday’s drowning)—it was a matter of people defying or disregarding (the lifeguards),” he said. “Myself and two regular duty guards helped retrieve the second (body)…the training kicks in and you do your job, and then you think about it and it sticks with you.” 

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