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Visiting from Atlanta, my son and I were in the water at Ocean Isle Beach on Wednesday afternoon, July 3.

We accessed the beach at the West End near the water tower. My family has been coming to this beach since 1962. My parents and I vacationed every year for two weeks at OIB since I was a baby. You could not get me out of the water back then!

I was—and still am—a strong swimmer, although I am now 36 years old and had not visited OIB since 2003. My teenage son and I had a break in our schedules and I decided to show him where some of my best childhood times were spent.

He is going to college next year and our father/son time is very precious now. We were staying with my aunt, uncle, and cousin in Shallotte for a few days and decided to spend a little time at the beach that day. We picked our spot on the crowded beach, sat down our chairs and bags, and made our way down to the water. We all spent 5 minutes in shallow knee deep water.

Then my aunt, uncle, and cousin decided to go back on shore. My son and I stayed in the water trying to body surf what few good waves we could get in the choppy water. This is where things changed very quickly. The undertow was getting really strong. One second we were in waist deep water and the next we were in chest deep water.

My son had a firm stance on a sand bar, but I had slipped off. I was treading water and trying to swim back on to a sand bar. I reached it and the water was chest deep on me for a few seconds. I tried to swim further in, but the current took me out into a deep hole.

At this point, I was wearing out fast. I felt hot, my heart rate greatly accelerated, and I was getting really lightheaded. It was getting virtually impossible to even keep afloat. I then noticed how far the current had now pulled us out and I was starting to feel defeated.

Time was running out on how much energy I still had. I was getting exhausted fighting the undertow. I no longer felt any sand underneath me. I was starting to get panicky. I yelled my son’s name and “HELP!” My son stayed on the sandbar and waved his arms back and forth screaming HELP. The only people anywhere close to us were two men from Nashville. They came over and grabbed my arms.

At this point, all 4 of us were in peril. I was the one in the hole and rescuing me meant they might get dragged off the sandbar too. I was so worried about my son, too. He has not grown up vacationing at the beach and doesn’t have the ocean experience that I have. But he handled this perfectly.

He stayed safely on the sandbar and alerted those guys. If he hadn’t been there, I feel 100% sure I would have drowned in another 30 seconds. I didn’t have the energy to wave my arms and yell for those guys and certainly didn’t have the energy to swim back to shore.

So now the guys had my arms, and I reached behind me to grab my son’s arm. Out of nowhere, a wave came and pushed all 4 of us back to shallow water. God was truly behind this since there were no powerful waves that day, only terrible undertow and riptides.

If that wave had not come, there is a chance all 4 of us could have drowned. I was dead weight by that point, completely exhausted and limp. Those two brave men definitely put their lives on the line. It just so happened that they were both nurse practitioners!

They got me on shore under an umbrella to keep the brutal sun off me. They laid me on my back and bent my knees. My heart rate was really high, I still had labored breathing(even though I managed to not take in any water), and I was starting to feel nauseated. My body was trying to throw up, but I fought it. I was struggling to get my oxygen level up and was too out of breath to handle vomiting. I might have aspirated if I had vomited.

They called the ambulance. Within a minute, the truck came. They loaded me on the back and took me over to the emergency vehicle access point to the waiting ambulance that was on the street. I didn’t start recovering until they gave me an IV and oxygen and rested in the hospital for a few hours. After all of this, I absolutely want OIB and surrounding beaches to—at the very least—have danger flags put out when needed.

If I had seen flags, I would have stayed on the shore and certainly never let my son go in the water. As I found in this instance, one can go from safe to not safe in a matter of seconds. Rip tides and strong undertows have been common on these beaches as long as I remember and it is time for more progressive steps toward making the beaches safer.

Until then, I will not be spending either time or money at OIB or at the surrounding beaches. After reading some of the other responses, it sounds like we were all very fortunate that there weren’t much higher drowning numbers on July 3rd.

I feel God was with us all that day. He sent me angels, my son being one of them! My heart goes out to the families who have lost loved ones in these treacherous waters. Please wake up, OIB, and help prevent these tragedies.

Comment on this Story

  • Christina Nicolaro Meadows

    Sadly, I am the youngest daughter of Rip current victim Bishop William Nicolaro. We have been vacationing at OIB for the last 15 year and never experience anything like we did that day, yes there are always strong currents but never where the sandbar just gets sucked away. We live in Florida and know what to do in these situations but speaking with my brother who was with my Father in the water said that it happened so fast and furious that they did what they could fast and were able to Get their footing on another sandbar but the same thing happened just as fast and separated them by 6 feet in a matter of seconds. We were obviously aware that the beaches didn’t have lifeguards after all these years but the environment is changing which is causing changes in the water, that needs to be taken into consideration. I heard there were over 40/50 rescues on the northern coast on just that day alone that should tell us all something, don’t you think? My wonderful Father is in the kingdom with his Lord and Savior but if he could prevent this from happening to another family I know he would. We celebrated my parents 50 th Wedding Anniversary the night before and made wonderful memories but selfishly I would prefer him here on earth where he could continue to bring people to God.
    I would be happy to be apart of changing water safety in OIB work adding lifeguards, please contract me if I can help make a difference to prevent the loss of another life.

  • I thank you for posting this letter in it’s entirety. In the future I am moving to an ocean area in North Carolina. I have zero experience in the area of safety of swimming in the ocean, although I am a good swimmer. The gentleman’s description, reminds me to take this issue very seriously.

  • Carmen

    My father was Randy Joyce. He was the 4th victim that drown in that area. I am his oldest daughter and I live in Florida. The past two years my father and I have been closer than ever before and to that I will be eternally grateful. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I will Google my fathers name and read news articles about his death hoping that one day it will sink in that he truly is gone for good. At least in this life. A hug to you and your son and a reminder to all of us to remember to forgive one another and love one another like there’s no tomorrow.

  • GLW

    I am glad you made it to shore. I agree a “Beach Warning Flag” should be considered for Brunswick County beaches. This type of system is generally maintained by seasonal lifeguards as can be noted on the Wrightsvile Beach town website. OIB has 30 public beach access areas of which 26 are CAMA Access. Considerations:
    (1) One must know what the flag colors represent as this need to be posted at the access areas and/or flag poles.
    (2) Time and resources present a challenge for quick flag change-outs.
    (3) The flag system may create controversy is one feels the conditions are incorrectly represented per their personal experience such as yours. The flag system is usually based on the NWS Surf Zone Forecast. The NWS forecast for July 3, 2013 would have recommended “yellow flags” representing “potentially high surf or dangerous currents and undertows, swimmers should exercise extreme caution”. See this reference: http://traveltips.usatoday.com/beach-warning-flags-mean-61015.html

    Per your quoted comment below, it is alarming you are placing fault with OIB.

    “After all of this, I absolutely want OIB and surrounding beaches to—at the very least—have danger flags put out when needed. If I had seen flags, I would have stayed on the shore and certainly never let my son go in the water. As I found in this instance, one can go from safe to not safe in a matter of seconds. Rip tides and strong undertows have been common on these beaches as long as I remember and it is time for more progressive steps toward making the beaches safer. Until then, I will not be spending either time or money at OIB or at the surrounding beaches. After reading some of the other responses, it sounds like we were all very fortunate that there weren’t much higher drowning numbers on July 3rd.”

    Based on my experience and training, this type of incident primarily reflects personal inexperience and negligence:

    (1) You were in waist to chest waters standing on a sand bar. See http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/science.shtml
    (2) You attempted to swim against the current.
    (3) You panicked and exhausted yourself fighting the current.

    I suggest the below for notification and education:


    Local Surf Zone Forecast issued by Wilmington NWS: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/data/ILM/SRFILM


    NWS Surf Zone Forecasts: http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/forecasts.shtml
    Beach Hazards: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/beachhazards/index.shtml
    NOAA Video on Rip Currents: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/ripcurrents/multimedia/Ripsmall.mov
    Rip Currents: http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/tips.shtml

  • Guest-o-matic

    …why don’t you become an tourist instructor or better yet, use your expansive knowledge to go out on the beaches to help those that “reflect personal inexperience and negligence.”, instead of criticizing those that happen to have found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. The man’s personal experience was well described and will likely help others to avoid this somewhat hidden danger.

    While your information could be helpful IF someone studied ahead of time, your energy could’ve been better spent describing what to do, how to react and why if inadvertantly caught in a deadly rip. Based on your “experience and training” that is.

    Knowledge with arrogance is useless!

  • Guest-o-matic

    I’ve been swimming in the ocean since I was a little kid and THOUGHT I knew what it was like being in a rip current…I didn’t. 3 years ago in late September, I got caught in a bad rip with my boogie board. Before I knew it, I was almost 300 yards out. Couldn’t even hear the breakers anymore, people were ants and they weren’t looking at me. They couldn’t hear me. I could only hear the water slapping my board as I was way beyond the breaking water. I panicked, thinking I would be out there all night without help. Boogie boards don’t paddle well and I didn’t have a leash. I almost abandoned it so I could swim better. Finally go loose from the rip and was able to make it back in, but I was totally jelly at that point. I could barely stand when I got back to shore. It scared the bejeesus out of me. I panicked even though I had flotation, don’t know what I would’ve done without it and I hope that now that I know what it is, I’ll handle it better next time.
    As I panicked, my heart rate increased greatly, my breathing was erratic and totally inefficient. I even further wasted my energy thrashing on that board trying to paddle back. I just wanted to get back in. I was scared and I was alone with nobody looking for me. Now I know that at the very least, I can float for hours without a board and I’ll get back in. I floated for 30 minutes at a time as a kid and still can.
    If it ever happens to you, the first time is a shocker, but you must maintain your cool, try to move parallel to the shore and then back in. The “panic” will very quickly rob even the best athlete of his energy. You don’t think right, your body won’t function correctly and you uselessly expend yourself to the point of total exhaustion in mere minutes.
    It isn’t easy, but it’s absolutely essential. Think about what you need to do and don’t panic. You’ll get back in!

  • ChefnSurf

    Been surfing for more than four decades. Last couple of years, now that my knees are shot, it’s the boogie board, but mostly I just bodysurf with a set of (really good) surf fins (that I still really love) and a hand board.

    Scared the crap out of myself on more than one occasion over the years. As we’ve both discovered, panic can be your number one enemy. All of that extra adrenaline you’re expending just drains your gas tank twice as fast. Now that I’m no longer invulnerable, I’ve discovered that I currently have a “slightly” smaller energy tank.

    These days, before I even go in, I always take a few minutes to review the surf and access it’s direction. Invariably, it’s either going right to left or visa versa. My plan, before going in, always includes a decision to go in the direction of the flow of the day if I do feel myself involved in a rip. If your already in a rip, why expend even more energy by swimming right instead of left or visa versa in order to get out of it?

    Hopefully, my posting this will prove to be of some value to someone else at some later time.

  • Guest2012

    This gentleman’s recap of his harrowing experience was gripping and may have just saved someone’s life! Just perhaps, someone may recall reading his story and think for a second to ask a surfer or a lifeguard, “Are there rip-currents today?” Surfers KNOW the conditions of the water. So, don’t underestimate real surfers.

    Thank you for taking the time to vividly tell a truly frightening/nightmarish story! More people should take the time to inform others of events so challenging.

    We personally have lived in Wilmington for 20 years and pay attention to the flags at our beaches lifeguard stations, but even they do not clearly depict undertow or Rip Tides to residents or Summer visitors. However, I look for GREEN Flags before I go past knee high.

    We agree with the writer and have been on beaches in the region that were not posted and/or have no LIFE GUARDS…and we don’t go to them anymore. They just aren’t safe and there is NO REASON for this lackadaisical stance with the tax base of this entire region.

    Thanks for adding this story to your on-line news Scott, it is a real Public Service. You would think that a Mayor would be 1/10 as vigilant for her constituents.

    BTW, I need to change my User Name to Guest 2014 or 2016! YIKES, I’m still caught in the Rip Currents of 2008, not to mention the tidal waves emanating from 2012.

  • GLW

    Thanks for your subjective response and comment titled: “Number ONE rule! DO NOT PANIC!”

    It was not my focus to deviate from the initial goal of providing resources on “Rip Currents”…..yet I did and for this I apologize……I feel I deserve “20 lashes over the bridge of my nose with a wet noodle” :)

    Thanks Again!


  • Guest050

    It is however each persons responsibility to take their own safety into their own hands and to take reasonable risks when swimming at a beach that boasts NO LIFEGUARDS….SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK.
    If you do not know or are unsure of the conditions of a beach with no protection, then it is only YOUR responsibility to take care of yourself. It is not the town, it is not the police, the fire department or the paramedics responsibility to make sure you can swim.

    Bottom line is that while there are several people that have had near death experiences and several people that lost their lives at our beaches, people need to be responsible for their own actions.
    It is the same thing as letting a bunch of inexperienced swimmers into a pool with no lifeguard and then blaming the town or neighborhood for the kid that drown.

  • Nscareolina

    Went to Ocean Isle despite the tragic drownings after the 4th. Our hotel made no mention of the recent drownings. I told as many people as I could in Raleigh, NY and NJ planning to visit Ocean Isle about the terrible rip currents. Brunswick county is most irresponsible for promoting their beaches and assuming every tourist knows about rip currents. I am very sorry Brunswick County is so poor they cannot afford flags, signage or lifeguards on their beaches.

  • Davis Briers

    I watched this happen and I was about 2 sec from swimming out there myself to help.

    Glad You Are Ok

    ,Davis Briers

  • Sam Pierce Harrell III

    God bless you Davis! It is wonderful to know that strangers are willing to lend a hand to others in need. I am doing well, and I consider each day just that more of a blessing!

    Thank you Davis

  • Sam Harrell III

    I am the man from Atlanta who wrote the article. I wanted to tell my story, and hope it can help someone. I realized on this visit that I am not as young as I used to be, and get exhausted a lot faster! I was delighted to see there was so much response to my near drowning article. I enjoyed reading every one of your comments.
    Thank you,
    Sam Pierce Harrell III

  • Guest-o-matic

    I think that anything we can contribute that could possible help someone if they find themselves in a rip is valuable. You provided some good pre-entry assessment points!

  • Terri Mortemore

    Did you know that a 72 yr. old man drowned on July 3rd – betwen 10:45 and 11:30am. He and his son started out on a sandbar in front of the house we were renting last week – 190’s East First st. We too have grown up on that beach, and so have my children (sophomore in high school through college). Never had I experienced a drowning there. Or heard of one. To hear your story I am seriously considering a letter to the OIB governing body. It was heart wrenching to watch the children and grandchildren witness such a tragedy. Two other people drowned that day at Sunset Beach. God really has more work for you to do … maybe making tourists more informed. I did not know until last week that sandbars are the places that rip currents are most dangerous. Thanks for sharing!


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