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Rip Current No. 1 Beach Danger

Learn what you can do to avoid beach death traps.
By
WebMD Feature

Surf can kill. Yet many of America's beaches have no lifeguards. If your favorite beach becomes a death trap, do you know what to do?

Probably not. Earlier this month, nine people drowned on crowded, unguarded Florida Gulf-coast beaches. Scores more were pulled from the water. The culprit: rip currents, often misnamed rip tides or undertows. They're unpredictable. They're inviting to swimmers. And if you don't know exactly what to do, they're killers.

If you think it couldn't happen to you, read on. This is the story of Larry and Sandee LaMotte. It hits very close to home for the WebMD staff. Larry, a former CNN bureau chief and correspondent, was a volunteer life coach for WebMD community members. Sandee is director of WebMD communities.

A Horrible Day at the Beach

It was already about 4 p.m. when they got to the beach. When they checked in at the rental agency, Sandee said nobody mentioned that there were red flags on the beach -- or that they meant "Dangerous Conditions -- Swimming Prohibited."

The surf was up -- unusual, but not a rare thing for Grayton Beach. Larry, Sandee, and their children Ryan, 12, and Krysta, 9, saw the red flag as soon as they arrived.

"The sign next to the red flag said it meant 'dangerous currents, like rip tides,' but it did not say these currents could or would occur at the shoreline," Sandee tells WebMD. "I saw a sheriff's deputy on the beach while we were there, but he drove through the crowd, with no warnings. Families like mine played in the surf all day. Dozens were in danger."

Sandee and the kids waded in the water -- she about ankle deep, the kids in only up to their knees. Ryan played with a "boogie board" in the shallow water inside the sandbar. At about 6 p.m., Sandee told Larry she'd take over dinner duties. She went inside the rental house. The kids kept on wading.

"Ten minutes later the kids came screeching in the door saying that Ryan was stuck in the water and Daddy went in after them and couldn't get out," Sandee says.

"I ran to the beach. As I was running down the boardwalk, there was a helicopter coming in. The sheriff's people were just coming up. They put on life vests and waded in. I waded in after them. I saw people in the water trying to get a man out. I think, 'Oh my God, it's Larry.' Then I see another man floating in the water.

"It just seemed to go on forever. At one point I just screamed to the heavens, but mostly I just stood there in the water, praying. I saw a man brought in with red trunks and they started working on him. Then I saw another man out there floating face down, and I knew. It was Larry. Larry was dead."

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