A paramedic didn't understand Florida's red flag system. Then his wife drowned in Gulf.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Some tourists still don't understand the beach flag warning system.
About a week after Amber Peardon of Mississippi drowned off the coast of Panama City Beach, her husband, Coty Peardon, said they didn't know it is illegal to swim in the Gulf of Mexico under double-red flags.
"We knew it was double-red, but (we thought) anything up to your knees ... was OK," Coty Peardon said. "I thought they put (the flags) out as warning signs. I didn't know they were law. We always respect them, but I thought that's what we were doing that day."
He, Amber and their 16-year-old daughter, Natalee Mason, were pulled from the Gulf of Mexico on June 22 by members of the Panama City Beach Fire Rescue. The incident occurred near Long Beach Resort, where the family from Lucedale, Mississippi, was staying.
PCB was under a double-red flag warning at the time, meaning rip currents were so dangerous that the Gulf was closed to swimmers under penalty of $500 fines. The flag system is universal throughout Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches including Pensacola and Fort Walton beaches and regardless of where you are, double red flags mean no one can be in the water.
Panama City Beach has increased its fines for the violation because of the rapidly increasing number of rescues over the past year due to tourists who don't obey the rules.
Amber, 37, was taken to Ascension Sacred Heart's emergency room on the Beach, where she was pronounced dead. Coty, 32, was driven to Ascension Sacred Heart Bay in Panama City, where he remained hospitalized as of Monday morning.
"Every day has just really been a nightmare," Coty said. "I've been stuck in the hospital. I haven't even gotten to see Amber yet. I just keep reliving seeing her in the water over and over again."
He said Amber and Natalee were in only about knee-deep water when they were caught in a rip current.
Coty, who works as a critical care paramedic for Jackson County Acadian Ambulance, dashed into the water to help. He said Amber motioned for him to go after Natalee first since she was farthest from shore.
Although he is trained in swift-water rescue, Coty said the current was too powerful for him to escape once he reached Natalee. Fortunately, they managed to get to a depth where they could walk with the help of a local rescue swimmer.
"He threw me and Natalee a float and then went for Amber," Coty said. "She was floating upside down at this point. He pulled her in and ... she was just limp. I knew she was gone, but I've seen so many patients like that and we get them back. I never once thought that it wouldn't work."
Coty said he passed out after he reached shore and that doctors told him his kidneys shut down from exhaustion. He planned to leave the hospital Monday.
A statement from Panama City Beach said that the city "uses every tool available to educate the public on double-red flags and the dangers of rip currents."
It also noted that the city and the Panama City Beach Tourist Development Council post updates on their Facebook pages whenever there are double-red flags or if they are anticipated.
Signs also are posted at every public beach access that explain the meaning and dangers behind each flag. Hotels and condos also are supposed to post information on the flag system in their rooms.
"We understand a lot of our visitors are not familiar with Gulf waters and are unaware of the risks," PCB officials said. "That's why we continually work to educate and inform our locals and visitors of the meaning of the flags, the dangers of rip currents and the fines that can be imposed from getting in the water on double red.
"Anytime there is a loss of life, it is tragic," the city added. "We want all our visitors to come, enjoy our beautiful beaches, make great family memories and return home safely."
Coty said that he and Amber would have celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary in December. He described her as someone who was compassionate, loving and always had a smile on her face.
The couple have three children: Natalee, 14-year-old Gavin Mason and 6-year-old Ayden Peardon.
A GoFundMe account set up shortly after Amber's death to help pay for funeral and memorial expenses had collected more than $14,000 as of Monday.
"She was so cheerful (and) had a heart of gold," Coty said. "She never gave me a break. She'd always be joking around with me nonstop. She always had something to say."