Oak Island drowning victim on anniversary trip laid to rest

Family and friends on mission to educate public on rip current dangers

OAK ISLAND, NC (WWAY) – A Tennessee woman who drowned during an anniversary trip to Oak Island was laid to rest Wednesday.

WWAY spoke with members of her church, including Pastor Joe Emmert who said the community is still in shock.

“Locals aren’t drowning, it’s people that are coming in for vacation are drowning,” said Emmert. “It’s been really hard for us because they wouldn’t have been there if we wouldn’t have offered them this vacation.”

Toni Watts and her husband Ron were in Oak Island to celebrate their 46th anniversary.

“It wasn’t our fault per se but we feel partly responsible,” he said.

Emmert spent many vacations in Oak Island with family but didn’t think to have a talk with the Watts family about rip currents.

“There’s got to be a better way to promote the safety of measures that are in place, where people can get the information so that they know, don’t go in the water.”

Oak Island Rescue’s Chief Peter Grendze agrees -they’ve put up signs with QR codes to warn the public when rip currents are a danger.

According to Emmert, Toni didn’t know there was a medium rip current risk that day, which according to Grendze is a just as dangerous as a high or low rip current risk.

He says from May 30, 2022, to June 22, 2022 – Oak Island Rescue registered more than 6,500 scans and said educating visitors has been challenging.

According to Grendze, studies have shown, that people who die from rip currents don’t live on the coast.

“How do we get that information out there?” he said. “During a recent seminar with the National Weather Service, we had people chime in from Australia, and they all had the same issue.

“They are still striving to figure out ways to get the word out to people who don’t live on the beach.

“They like our QR codes because it gives them (the public) access.”

According to Grendze, beachgoers don’t have to look at a flag, the flag is explained once the QR code is scanned.

The family and congregation’s mission is to now educate the public about the dangers surrounding rip currents and the signs to look for.

“Part of what we want to do through this is, because of what happened is, not only through this but also for others that have drowned in the past month is, there’s got to be a better way,” said Emmert.

Toni was laid to rest in Knoxville, Tennessee Wednesday, surrounded by her family and friends.

“She changed a lot of lives, I love her with all my heart,” said long-time friend and church administrator Vickie Hicks. “She did a lot for the church, but no one knew, she was humble.”

Toni was a long-time member of North Knoxville Baptist Church, her friends and family said, she was a giver who enjoyed life.

The outpouring of support from the Oak Island community through Toni’s loved one’s hardship is overwhelming, according to both Hicks and Toni’s daughter Joy.

“Probably 75 percent of the donations came from Oak Island, it was amazing to see the notes that were left, the concern,” said Hicks. “The number one thing that I remember the most is how they were talking about the people who were there immediately, and cared, that meant more to me than anything.”

“I have a lot of people at Oak island to thank,” said Joy.

Those donations are how Toni’s body was flown back to Knoxville for Wednesday funeral.

“She just had a huge heart for serving, Toni loved everybody, and everybody loved her,” said Emmert. “There’s just a grief and heaviness that we are going to have to deal with for a while.”

Oak Island Rescue urges visitors to check the National Weather Service website anytime they plan to head to the beach, and beachgoers should always pay attention to all signs and flags in-and-around the beach.

The family is trying would like to create a memorial on behalf of Toni, to donate click here.

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