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.

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.

"All of a sudden the current just starts pulling them into slightly deeper water," says Bill Soltz, a member of the United States Lifesaving Association, a nonprofit, professional association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers. "That's when they start panicking, and it's just a continuation of that before they become in danger and in trouble."

What makes matters worse in Walton County is that there are no lifeguards along the county's 26-mile shoreline, adds Soltz. Although he is certain the presence of lifeguards would make a difference, Soltz says the Walton County commissioners have told him it is too expensive to hire them.

"I've talked to all the commissioners in this county and in some of the other counties directly," said Soltz, "and they appreciate my concerns and basically just give me the heave-ho."

Lifeguards have made a big difference at other beaches where rip currents are also common. This Memorial Day weekend, at Daytona Beach, on the Atlantic coast of Florida, lifeguards, who are trained to swim away from the rip current before heading toward the shore, rescued 22 people who had gotten caught in vicious rip currents.

"We can't continue to advertise this place and tell people to come on down and then not protect them once they're here," Soltz says of the Walton County beaches.

However, in Walton County, ABC News did not find much urgency about the problem.

Ken Pridgen, chairman of the Walton County Commission, says the county admits the drowning deaths on Black Sunday were not good for the county.

"It was bad, bad during that time," recounted Pridgen. In response to whether that day was enough to cause the county to invest in lifeguards, he said, "Well, we're coming up with a plan. I don't know how we're gonna get there."

Rip Current Victims Tackle Awareness

The county adjacent to Walton has hired and stationed lifeguards along its beaches in response to its rip current problem. Yet, Walton County is trying a different solution.

"They have what we call Seemore, the Safety Crab," says Pridgen.

Instead of lifeguards, they have Seemore, the Safety Crab, a cartoon character. He is the symbol for a public affairs campaign designed to remind people of a warning flag system.

"The flag system is there for you, so you know before you go" says Seemore in television public service announcements.

When looking for the flags, ABC News found them placed rather randomly along the Walton County beach. Furthermore, the state of Florida's own survey showed most beach visitors ignore the flags. Double red flags were up the day ABC News visited the beach. Yet, there were several swimmers in the water.

"Relying on a flag system alone is inherently flawed because, first of all, flags don't make rescues. Lifeguards do," said Barbara Payne, a beach-goer from Columbia, Mo..

Payne helped to start a campaign to hire lifeguards for Walton County beaches after she, her daughter, niece and nephew almost died in a rip current during spring break this year.

"It never dawned on me that I was caught in a rip current," said Payne. "I just kept thinking if we swim hard enough, we'll get there."

Instead, she admits that is the classic error, "You keep swimming. You tire yourself out, and basically then you don't have any energy left to stay afloat."

Although he almost drowned himself, a teenage Good Samaritan managed to rescue Payne's niece and nephew while Payne and her daughter Taylor were still struggling in the water.

"I grabbed her hand. I was like, 'Mom, we can't stop. We have to keep swimming. You're got to keep moving your arm. I know it's hard, but we've just got to keep going,' " Taylor recounted. "I mean, you're crying. Your tears are in the way, the waves, you're choking. But I just gave it my all and somehow I just made it in."

Since then, Payne has joined forces with Sandee, the widow of CNN correspondent Larry LaMotte, to persuade Walton County to hire lifeguards. They have not received a single response.

"It tells me that they don't care that their tourists are drowning at an alarming rate," Payne said.

Walton County officials say that they have sheriff's deputies patrolling the beaches. However, very few of the deputies are certified as lifeguards.

When pressed on bringing certified lifeguards to the county's shore, Pridgen, the county commission chairman, answered, "It may be another, probably next season before we can get lifeguards in place."

For Payne, that is simply not good enough. "I think it's morally and ethically wrong that they take millions of dollars in tourism revenue from us, but they spend precious little to protect us once we're on the beach."

Surviving a Rip Current

Professional lifeguards say there is a way to survive rip currents.

"You feel that current pulling you out, and the best thing to do is to try and just ride with it and just ease over to the side," advises Bill Soltz, who belongs to a professional lifeguard association.

Although swimmers may be tempted to try to swim toward shore, Soltz and his colleagues say they should instead flow with the current even if it takes them farther away from the coast. The next step is to swim to the side of the current, which is parallel to the shore. In 20 to 30 seconds, the rip current will dissipate, and the swimmer can ride the waves back to the shore.

ABC News' Avni Patel and Simon Surowicz contributed to this report.