Caught in a Florida Riptide
The story begins on July 8, 2017, in Florida’s hard-work-and-cold-beer Panhandle. Members of the Ursrey family, eight in total, are enjoying an evening together at the beach. At around 7:30 p.m., as the sun sinks lower, the two boys—Noah, 11, and Stephen, 8—take their boogie boards and wade into the waves without the grown-ups noticing. When the kids are about 65 metres from shore, they realize that the ocean has tugged them out to sea. After trying hard and failing to paddle back in, they start waving and screaming for help. But the lifeguards have clocked out for the evening. There’s a yellow flag flying, indicating caution, but most of the regulars were scarcely paying attention to the warning.
The boys have been struggling for several minutes when Brittany and Tabatha Monroe, a married couple from Georgia, stroll by. They don’t see Stephen and Noah at first, but they hear them. “If someone yells for help, I’m going to try to help if I can,” Tabatha says.
The two women leap into the ocean and easily reach the brothers, who are still in water less than six feet deep. The women reassure the frightened boys and grab their boogie boards—then discover that they, too, are in trouble. They can’t make any progress back to shore and can barely graze the sandy bottom with their feet.
After a few minutes, it becomes clear that they are all trapped in a rip current. Rips move perpendicularly to the shoreline and can quickly exhaust swimmers who try to fight them; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 93 people drowned in these flows in 2017. Safety experts warn against fighting the pull and advise that anyone trapped in a rip should swim parallel to shore until finally exiting its deadly belt—or float calmly to preserve energy if exiting isn’t possible. The women try swimming, but no matter which way they move, they’re still stuck.
Brittany, who has eight-year-old Stephen, is petite and struggling to keep her head above water. Panicking, she releases the boy and makes a frantic push for safety. By now, some teenagers have heard the commotion. One of them, a boy who is tall enough to keep his feet on the ocean floor, dashes into the water, grabs Brittany and hauls her back to shore.
Meanwhile, Tabatha can feel herself being pulled further out. She is treading water, already exhausted and beginning to despair now that she’s trying to save both boys alone. The waves keep plunging her underwater as the two boys bob next to her, holding their boogie boards.
Onshore, Brittany is hysterical. Shaun Jernigan is heading back to his car but stops. “What’s wrong?” he asks her.
“My wife is drowning!” Brittany says. Shaun, a hulking house framer from Georgia, looks out and sees the trio of heads through the waves. He immediately strides into the water. A year ago, Shaun had been caught in a rip current in this very spot and narrowly escaped drowning. The feeling of the ocean lapping about his nose and ears is familiar—uncomfortably so. Still, he wades out as deep as he dares, up to his chin.
Four metres still lie between him and Tabatha and the boys. She’s screaming for help, and while it’s painful to abandon them, he knows that if he continues, he’ll become another victim. He turns around.
“Please don’t leave me,” Tabatha pleads. “I’m fixing to die!”
“I’m not leaving,” Shaun answers. “I’ll be right back.”
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