4:30 p.m. update:
PANAMA CITY BEACH — A 15-year-old boy from Tennessee was pronounced dead after being pulled from Gulf waters Tuesday afternoon.
Panama City Beach & Surf members pulled Tyler Spann, 15, of Lexington, Tenn., from the water behind Bikini Beach Resort, 11001 Front Beach Road, about 1:30 p.m., according to the Panama City Beach Police Department. They reported Spann was unresponsive when pulled from the water and was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Yellow flags were flying at the time Spann went into distress.
On Sunday, 21-year-old Tony Jackson of Cartersville, Ga., died after being overtaken by a large wave near M.B. Miller County Pier. The day before, 76-year-old Eugene Spann of Atlanta was pulled from the Gulf behind the Flamingo Motel, 15525 Front Beach Road.
Nicholas Caligiure, an investigator with the Beach Police Department, advised visitors to become familiar with the flag system. Yellow is an intermediate level of risk and cautions beachgoers to not go in the water. Caligiure also said beachgoers should be familiar with the Gulf of Mexico and monitor kids frequently if they’re in the water.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — A 21-year-old Georgia man became the fifth Gulf-related death in less than a month Sunday afternoon, and the second man from North Georgia to die in as many days while swimming at the beach.
Police said Tony Orlando Jackson of Cartersville, Georgia, was swimming near the M.B. Miller County Pier when he was overtaken by a large wave. Just a day before, 67-year-old Eugene Spann of Atlanta was pulled from the Gulf behind the Flamingo Motel and later pronounced dead at a hospital. Both bodies have been turned over to the Medical Examiner’s Office for further investigation.
They join three others, including a five-year-old child, who died last month while swimming, bringing the total up to five, according to Panama City Beach Police Chief Drew Whitman, noting that is two more deaths than all of last year.
Most of the drowning and near drownings are happening when red flags are flying at least part of the day, warning swimmers of potential danger. In an interview last week, Bay County Beach Operations supervisor Tabitha Kimball said the lifeguards — who only cover part of the beaches — are making from 13 to more than 30 rescues a week.
After Subtropical Storm Alberto churned up the waters during Memorial Day Weekend — which likely contributed to some of the earlier drownings — the lifeguards made 29 primary rescues, 15 secondary rescues and 88 water assists, according to county records.
The beach “is beautiful, but it can be deceiving,” Kimball said last week. “The rip currents change daily sometimes hourly. The ocean in general is very different than a pool. You know how much chlorine is in a pool. You know there are no rip currents in a pool. It doesn’t change. Out here, it is a daily change. The floor is changing. The weather is changing. … The currents are changing.”
On Saturday, local Bethany Null learned that lesson.
Rather than the Gulf, Null said she was swimming in the bay, near the DuPont Bridge when she felt the tell-tale tug of a rip current.
“I’m an avid swimmer,” she said. “I was a lifeguard in my teens. I couldn’t get out of it. I never thought I would be caught in a rip current.”
Null and her sister, who also was caught, were pulled almost out to the channel area, where large cargo and military ships are a frequent sight. There were a lot of other swimmers in the area, but no one was really paying attention as they were pulled farther and farther out, and their strength began to wane.
“I had swallowed salt water,” Null said. “I was choking. I was scared. And it just kept pushing me out.”
She tried swimming parallel to shore — the oft-repeated lesson on how to get out of a rip current — but it was too wide and too strong, her efforts leaving her with nothing but the strength to barely lay on her back. Exhausted, her head barely above water, Null struggled to stay afloat. When she didn’t come home, she thought, her wife would contact the Coast Guard, but by then, they would be searching for bodies.
“I was thinking, ‘This is it,’ ” Null recalled. “I had actually began to cry. I’m local and I know there’s people that have died right there. There’s kids that have been taken by that current.”
But then, from around the corner, hope appeared in an unlikely form — a personal watercraft. A man with his young daughter on back rode up to the sisters, asking if they were OK and towing them both back to shore. The man rode off before they could get his name, and Null said she’s currently trying to track him down to thank him.
“I would love to find this man,” she said.
To stay safe, Kimball always recommends swimmers swim by a lifeguard when possible, and to talk to them about the water conditions that day. Whitman urged residents to learn and pay attention to the beach flag system and monitor the flags throughout the day, as they will be upgraded as conditions change.
“If you have small children, please keep a close eye on them,” Whitman said. “It does not take much for a small child to be caught in a rip current. When we are at red or double red flags, stay out of the water. A good rule of thumb is, if you are in up to your knees, you are in too deep.”
Even strong swimmers can be caught in a current and drown if they panic, said Carol Wagner, a supervisor with Beach and Surf Patrol. Flotation devices, she said, can help people stay out of trouble in the Gulf and aid in a rescue.
“Fear tends to grab people — swimmers and nonswimmers — when they are pulled away from shore,” Wagner said in a press release. “People react to rip currents differently. You can be a good swimmer and still be pulled in.”