Photo | Daniel Anderson/Lagniappe

Lifeguards for the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach must meet stringent training requirements and certifications. (INSET) Molly Bryant is pictured the day before her 2003 drowning death in Panama City, Florida.

To date, this year’s victims have traveled from Wisconsin and Taiwan. Last year, it was Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana. Visitors from all over the United States and around the globe flock to the Gulf Coast each summer for vacation, and it’s not an uncommon place for them to die.

According to data from the National Weather Service (NWS) in Mobile, at least 110 people have succumbed to rip current related drownings from Dauphin Island to Okaloosa County, Florida, since 1996, a total that sails above those who have died in the same time period from flooding, tornadoes, tropical weather and lightning combined. Eight of those have been in Mobile County, 40 have occurred in Baldwin County.

“A large majority of fatalities are coming from nonlocals,” said Jason Beaman, warning coordination meteorologist for NWS Mobile. “They are people vacationing and not understanding the threats — 70 to 80 percent of people who die are from out of town.”

On Aug. 2, it was 17-year-old Yen Yi Liu and 45-year-old Chung Chen Su of Taiwan, who were swimming on Dauphin Island’s West End Beach when they were caught in a rip current and pulled offshore. In March, 17-year-old Jevon Lemke of Reedsville, Wisconsin, was on Spring Break with his family in Fort Morgan when he disappeared in heavy surf.

The same week of the Dauphin Island drownings, the body of 53-year-old Richard Coleman of Jasper, Alabama, was pulled from the water near Perdido Pass, although officials believe he may have suffered from a medical condition.

While natives may be familiar with the flag warning system or connected to local media and weather services where surf conditions are broadcast daily, visitors may be ignorant. Even if they are aware, they often choose to ignore the warnings and enter the water anyway.

“Look at this way,” said Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier. “If you had a one-week vacation to Aspen or Lake Tahoe and the forecast called for blizzard or avalanche conditions, you’re probably going to risk it and venture out or go skiing regardless. Unfortunately it makes sense to the standpoint that people coming here on vacation have spent a bunch of money for a rental house and have a finite period of time to have the fun they planned, and they don’t feel like they have the luxury to have a better day to go swimming.”

Neither Dauphin Island nor the Fort Morgan peninsula employ full-time lifeguards. As recently as 2010, neither did Orange Beach, but a series of events set in motion by a 2003 drowning changed that.


Molly’s Patrol

Molly Bryant was a 15-year-old high school student from Trussville, Alabama, who was visiting Panama City Beach with about 60 people from her church on Fourth of July week in 2003. According to her mother, Rebecca, she was an experienced pool swimmer whose firefighter father often cautioned the family about all manners of risk, in and out of the water.

But of the several adults chaperoning the beach trip, none reportedly knew about the flag warning system. Tropical Storm Bill was churning in the Gulf and red flags were flying, but Panama City only had one lifeguard at the time, and they were responding to another call farther down the beach.

“One chaperone took a group of girls down the beach and said ‘this looks like a great spot to get in,’” Rebecca Bryant recalled this week. “There was a small sandbar with a rip current on one side of it and it was waist deep. But just within a few minutes, three girls were caught in it.”

Molly’s best friend, Heather Smith, held on to her as long as she could, but then they were separated. Smith made it back to the beach, ran to a jet ski rental business and begged the attendant to pull Molly from the water.

By the time she was brought back to shore she was unresponsive. She died on the way to the hospital.

According to news reports from the time, at least 18 people drowned in Gulf waters that summer, including nine in two days. One was Larry LaMotte, a 60-year-old from Atlanta who was attempting to rescue his own son from rough surf in Grayton Beach, Florida, when he drowned.

A school teacher at the time, Rebecca Bryant took a leave of absence during her bereavement. One morning she was watching “The Today Show” and saw an interview with Sandee LaMotte, Larry’s widow.

“Here it was just a few months later and [Sandee] was already doing something about it,” Bryant said. “I contacted her in Atlanta and we became friends. For the next year or so I teamed up with her; we traveled and met lifeguards and she spoke on CNN and I helped her with her children … and we just kind of got on a little path and we did that for seven years, to no avail.”

Primarily focusing their efforts on the Florida Panhandle, Bryant said they ran into resistance from elected officials concerned about the expense or liability of providing lifeguards. In 2010, during a visit to The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, a friend recommended she refocus her efforts on Alabama beaches. By September, Bryant and her husband, Larry, a retired firefighter himself, had convinced then Fire Chief Forney Howard and Mayor Tony Kennon to launch Molly’s Patrol, funded largely with donations from the Bryant family and their network.

From humble beginnings with just two lifeguards and one tower, Beach Safety Division Chief Brett Lesinger said Molly’s Patrol employed 20 guards this year.

“The Bryant family has been key,” Lesinger said, noting he joined the patrol six years ago under founder Melvin Shepard, who now leads the beach safety division in neighboring Gulf Shores. “Their friends and family donate hundreds of thousands every year and for any equipment we need, they try to make sure that’s available.”

“We are not rich but we are blessed and this is what we need to do to carry on the legacy of our child,” Bryant explained.

The results have paid off. Orange Beach currently has four lifeguard towers stationed by two personnel each, with additional roving patrols. The department has recorded 180 rescues in 2018.

“We cover 8 miles’ worth of beach and our major thing is just education, from now until the end of time,” Lesinger said. “Sometimes it feels like we’re preaching to the choir but you’d be amazed how many people are not aware of the flag system or the risks of rip currents at all. We’re here to do rescues but our main objective is to get information to our visitors in a better way.”

Shepard agreed. While he supervised Molly’s Patrol before his move to Gulf Shores, the city of Orange Beach adopted new educational measures aimed primarily at tourists.

Aside from daily information posted on the city’s website and social media channels, there are also pamphlets in many hotels and condo packets for guests upon arrival. Now, as lieutenant of fire and safety services in Gulf Shores, he says the city broadcasts surf conditions three times daily on Sunny 105.7 and publishes a video every morning on Facebook.

“So now we have information in the most of the condos — we coordinated with the visitor’s bureau to publish some pamphlets — but how many people are going to stop and read that stuff before they put on a swimsuit and go down to the beach? The key, I believe, is educating them before they get here. I would like to see billboards on the interstates … there’s a lot of Alexander Shunnarah signs that could be replaced with rip current information.”

Bryant said during her travels with LaMotte, she found Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, as one of the most proactive communities in warning of rip current risks. There, each hotel and condo visitor must sign an acknowledgement they’ve read and understood the flag warning system.

“And we’ve gotten some pushback on that in Alabama and Florida, if you can believe it,” she said, “because some visitors bureaus do not want people to have to stand in check-in lines any longer than necessary to pay and get the keys to their condo.”

Bryant suggested rip current education could also be easily incorporated into inland health classes and public high schools.

“We could do so much more,” she said.


Hidden danger

Shepard is considered by many to be the foremost expert on the dangers of rip currents along Alabama’s beaches. A firefighter since 2001, he has attended or supervised hundreds of calls for swimmers in distress. After this month’s drownings in Dauphin Island, he took issue with how some media outlets described rip currents as “pulling victims underwater.”

“They don’t pull you underwater, they pull you offshore,” he explained. “People submerge when they can no longer remain buoyant. They tire themselves out, they can’t stay above the surface. They may aspirate small amounts of water at first but then it rapidly goes downhill from there.”

Victims who do succumb may submerge below the surface in a matter of minutes, where their bodies often remain for hours or possibly days before putrefaction increases buoyancy. But in some occurrences, victims are never seen again.

“Sometimes [rip currents] are easy to spot, sometimes they are not,” Shepard said. “You have to know what to look for. Dirty, churned-up water being pulled through the waves, items being pulled offshore through the waves, calm-looking areas between sets of crashing waves …”

Each day, the city of Gulf Shores consults weather forecasts and makes its own observations to determine which color of flag to fly, yellow or red.

“We got rid of the green flags,” Shepard said. “People see that and assume there is no risk. There is always a risk when swimming in open water, if not from rip currents than from sea life or other factors. You can never let your guard down.”

Shepard said certain areas of the beach may be more risky than others, and those areas can change day by day depending on the movement of the sandbar. When conditions mandate, double red flags are ordered by a proclamation of the mayor, closing the water to all swimmers. At that point it becomes an arrestable offense to enter the water.

Callaway Pass at Little Lagoon and Perdido Pass in Orange Beach are especially prone to currents as the tides fall and water rushes offshore.

“We always have red flags up there because it’s never safe to swim there. Plus you have boat traffic on top of that.”

As far as training, certified lifeguards must be able to swim a continuous 500 meters in a pool in 10 minutes or less. They work on more effective swimming techniques, then they move on to training certified by the United States Lifesaving Association.

Gulf Shores had about 50 applicants this year, Shepard said. Twenty-three were hired.

“In a week it’s hard to impart on a lot of young people the importance of what this job means. You’re not out here to work on your tan or find a date for the weekend, you’re here to make sure everyone who spends their hard-earned money to come down here and enjoy the beach goes home safely and wants to return.”

Lifeguards also receive 48 hours of medical training and some are certified EMTs or paramedics.

Shepard said the effort has paid off. There have been 91 rescues in Gulf Shores this season and no drownings.


Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan

Back in Mobile County, Collier compared Dauphin Island to Fort Morgan rather than Gulf Shores or Orange Beach. The town of Dauphin Island only owns 400 feet of beachfront on the West End; the rest is held by the independent Park and Beach Board or private property owners.

“We have 14 miles of Gulf-front beach but only half of that is inhabited,” Collier said of the island. “Our efforts now are to reach out and work with the Park and Beach Board, the neighborhood and condo associations and bring those people to the table and they will be part of the fix.”

Collier said the town’s previous efforts to staff lifeguards have been ineffective because of the island’s remoteness and small pool of qualified individuals who can commit to the hours needed.

“So now we’re looking at real estate companies; they have a direct connection with these visitors, so my idea was to take a look at what they are handing out in their rental packets and see if we can come up with one comprehensive page or pages so no matter who you rent from, you will get the same piece of information. If we can move on that effort and get some more comprehensive signage, I think that will go a long way to allowing individuals to make the best decisions for their families.”

Shepard said officials from Dauphin Island approached him years ago about helping to staff lifeguards on the island, but transportation was an issue. However, there will be lifeguards at the Tri the Gulf triathlon in October.

Bryant said she has lobbied property owners along Fort Morgan as well as the Baldwin County Commission to adopt lifesaving measures east of Gulf Shores. The peninsula is served by a volunteer fire department with limited resources, but earlier this year the County Commission approved the purchase of an EMILY Swift Water Rescue Buoy — a sort of drone lifeguard.

Bryant’s other daughter, Emily Freeman, raised money last year via a GoFundMe campaign to purchase defibrillators for Orange Beach.

“Our ultimate goal would be to have lifeguards and beach safety rescue along the entire coast of Alabama,” Bryant said. “I believe the funding is there, whether it be a bed tax or something similar. You just need the political will to do it.”

Indeed, the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism Bureau reported 6.4 million visitors in 2017, claiming in its annual report that tourism generated $4.4 billion in spending last year.

“I think there is a fear that if they close the beaches or have lifeguards keeping people from the water that the tourists would go home and they would lose that almighty tourist dollar,” Bryant said. “But after people have committed to these weeklong condo stays, they are going to spend their money somewhere — a movie, an arcade, shopping — we have to get over that stigma. I have traveled the entire United States and looked at lifeguard programs and it’s not a deterrent, it’s a safety net.”

Collier agreed. “The main thing is we realize that we are a community that relies on tourism, and we need people to come and enjoy everything Dauphin Island has to offer,” he said. “We pride ourselves on being family friendly and it hurts us all when these types of tragedies take place.”

Meanwhile, Rebecca Bryant and her family pledge to ensure Molly’s death will keep other swimmers alive.

“It is something that is so preventable and it has to start with education,” Bryant said. “I cry for this family from Wisconsin, who will never have any closure, and I cringe every time I hear about another drowning. But when we hear about the number of rescues, we try to focus on the positive.

“Yes, I miss my daughter and yes, I would like to have her back, but when we sit around and think had this not happened to us, we would be sitting around doing nothing and expecting life to be the same way it always has been. And life’s not always going to be predictable, like the current. Things happen, and we have to get active.”