Two Florida counties warn swimmers to stay on land
Precautions follow rare rip currents that drowned five
(CNN) -- The beach patrols of Walton and Okaloosa counties, Florida, turned out in force to advise people to stay out of the water Monday, a day after five swimmers drowned in strong rip currents near Destin.
A sixth person, one of dozens rescued from the fiercely surging undercurrent close to shore -- a rarity in this part of the Gulf of Mexico known for its gentle surf -- was hospitalized in serious condition.
Gary Beler, a National Weather Service warning coordinator based in Mobile, Alabama, said such severe rip currents -- commonly referred to as riptides -- last occurred in that area of the gulf, between Pensacola and Destin, in the mid-1990s.
In this case, also a departure from the norm, the likely cause was a combination of recent thunderstorms and swells that could have been caused by a sandbar shift. In such a situation, a strong, narrow flow of seawater rushes back out to sea after incoming waves crash ashore.
Swimmers typically panic and try to swim their way out, which is invariably a mistake, said Dennis Wise, a spokesman for the Walton County sheriff, whose office responded to 32 distress calls and reported four drownings.
"The ocean's going to win each and every time, unless you just really go along with the current until it pushes you out, and then you swim back to shore," Wise said. "If you start to fight this, that's when you're in trouble."
Killed were Marietta Yakstis, 62, of Goneville, Illinois; David Che-Hsien Huang, 40, of Houston, Texas; Curtis Corhan, 53, of Bunker Creek, Florida; and Larry LaMotte, 60, of Atlanta, Georgia.
LaMotte was a former longtime CNN correspondent.
A fifth victim, Marla Amos, 32, of Sellersburg, Indiana, drowned in nearby Okaloosa County while swimming with her 10-year-old son, who was rescued.
Would-be rescuers caught in current
LaMotte was in the water about 5 p.m., when two people on the beach realized he was in distress and swam to help him, Wise said.
"They swam out there, got a hold of him, then all three got in trouble with the riptide, and let go," Wise said.
One of the men then turned his attentions to the other would-be rescuer, Ken Brimley, who sank beneath the surface, and helped him to shore, Wise said.
When Brimley was pulled out of the water, he had no heartbeat, Wise said. Deputies on shore performed CPR and got his heart beating again, Wise said.
Brimley was in serious condition Monday at Sacred Heart Hospital in Santa Rosa Beach.
By the time LaMotte was taken to shore, his heart, too, had stopped; attempts at CPR proved fruitless, Wise said.
Amos and her son Michael, staying at her parents' vacation home near the beach, were swimming not far from shore when "they got knocked down by large waves," said Sgt. Rick Hord of the Okaloosa sheriff's office. "He popped up in time, and she didn't."
'Two years' worth of drownings'
A passerby pulled the boy from the water; soon after, a lifeguard pulled the mother's body from the surf, Hord said. "Between us and Walton County, we had about two years' worth of drownings in one day."
Despite the posting of red flags along the water, "People went in and got beat up by the waves," Hord said. "Sometimes the wave pulls you under. If you're not accustomed to it, it's difficult not to panic. It's stronger than you are; I don't care who you are."
Sunday's clear, sunny weather followed two days of stormy weather, during which 3 inches of rain had fallen, and 15-knot winds -- prime conditions for rip currents, Wise said.
"If the wind and the tides are right, it puts holes in the sand bars. The water flowing through that, going back out to the ocean, is what causes the riptide."
Red flags advising bathers of the treacherous conditions had been posted for several days, but many of the thousands who flocked to the beaches Sunday paid them no heed, Wise said.
"It was a beautiful day to be at the beach; not a good day to be in the water, but a great day for the beach."
All day Monday, swimmers still were being advised to stay out of the water -- a warning again largely ignored -- but this time, said Wise, "Everything's been quiet, thank goodness."