Dangerous Currents Stalk Florida Panhandle

The beaches of Walton County, Fla., are considered some of the most popular in America. Located along the Gulf of Mexico, it is advertised as the perfect, safe place for a family vacation by the local tourist development council.

"It's a beautiful beach," agreed one beach-goer. "It's one of the most beautiful beaches in the world."

The beaches of Walton County draw 2.5 million visitors from around the country to their shores every year.

However, these tourists do not hear much about just how dangerous the waters along the Walton County coast can be. Many visitors may not be aware that rip currents, or natural phenomena that produce strong underwater currents, can drag swimmers away from the shore.

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In the last five years, more than 50 people have drowned in the waters along the Florida Panhandle. Eight of them died on one day in 2003, which is now known as Black Sunday.

Among those who died was retired CNN correspondent Larry LaMotte, who had made Walton County an annual vacation destination for his wife and two children.

"We'd been coming here for 10 years," said Sandee, LaMotte's wife, "every summer with our family."

Unexpected Danger Stuns Two Families

On Black Sunday, LaMotte took his children, Ryan and Krysta, for a quick swim before dinner.

"When the waves started to pick up a little bit, we decided to get the boogie boards out, along with a lot of other people that were out there, and play right here in the shoreline," Sandee told ABC News as she pointed to a spot in the water about 10 feet from shore.

Five minutes after Sandee had left her husband and children at the beach to go home and fix dinner, "the kids came bursting in the door," she remembered. "They said, 'Mom! Mom! Ryan got stuck in the water, and Daddy went in after him, and now Daddy's gone."

Ken Brindley, 36, a vacationer from Conway, Ark., was on the beach with his wife and two children. When he saw LaMotte in trouble, he ran in to help and also became caught in the rip current. Others on the beach then tried to help Brindley.

"I watched these people rescue Ken, bring him back out of the water and lay him down, actually get color back into his body, and take him off to the hospital," Sandee said. "But there was this body floating with blue trunks, just bobbing. It was Larry. They dragged him up on the beach, turned him over, and his face was full of sand. He had obviously hit the bottom at one point, and they started working on him. But he was very, very white. I knew then that he was gone."

LaMotte's son was saved. Ken Brindley, the Good Samaritan, died two days later without regaining consciousness.

"So here we are two families, two husbands, two fathers, leaving behind two sets of children, all because we didn't realize that we were in danger playing here, the water's shore," said Sandee.

County Has No Lifeguards

Although it is often little understood, the rip current is a common danger that claims an average of 100 lives from coast to coast each year. It occurs when a sandbar traps the water from incoming waves and creates a kind of artificial pond. When there is a break, or a rip, in the sandbar, the water in the artificial pond flows back out to sea and causes the rip current. The flow can be up to eight mph.

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