— When the LaMotte family arrived at Grayton Beach in the Florida Panhandle on June 8, they didn't know the red flag posted at its entrance signaled dangerous rip currents.
But they found out all too quickly. After 12-year-old Ryan LaMotte was caught up in the violent current, his father and another man were drowned trying to save him.
Larry LaMotte, 60, of Atlanta, one of CNN's first bureau chiefs and a longtime correspondent, was one of nine victims who drowned in the same area after a weekend of stormy weather churned up the surf. Another 40 were rescued from rip currents up and down the coast that day.
A rip current is powerful fast moving river of water under the surface that can drag a swimmer out 75 yards from near the shore line in just a few seconds, said Jim McCrady, president of the southeast region of the U.S. Life Saving Association. If you have southeast or northeast winds over a prolonged period, the rip current gets stronger.
LaMotte's wife Sandee recounted what happened in an interview with ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. Sandee remembers she last saw her husband playing on the beach with the children.Their son Ryan was about two waves into the water when her husband called him in. But Ryan shouted back that he was unable to swim in, so his father and another man went in after him.
Ultimately, Ryan was rescued by other beachgoers. But both his father and Ken Brindley, 36, of Conway, Ark., were caught in the rip current during the rescue. Brindley died several days later at the hospital.
A 'Senseless' Accident
Sandee LaMotte maintains there were inadequate warnings and no lifeguards along the fatal stretch. Dozens of people were swimming at the Walton, Fla. beach.
While the family had seen the red flag on the beach and checked to find out it warned of strong currents, Sandee LaMotte says it did not warn people not to swim. The beaches should have been closed, she argues.
"As we went down we stopped and read the sign about the red flag that meant there were dangerous currents, possibly rip tides in the area," LaMotte said. "But it didn't say anything about not getting in the water at all."
McCrady agrees red flags are not adequate to warn people about rip currents. "Flags do not replace lifeguards. I can't emphasize enough that everyone should swim in front of a lifeguard."
In some parts of the Panhandle, red flags are used as a substitute for lifeguards, he explained. On beaches with lifeguards, many of whom are high school or college students, drownings are reduced to one per 18 million beachgoers.
But knowing how to handle rip currents helps.
"The important things to remember are never to swim against the current," McCrady said. "You just tire yourself out. Swim parallel to the shore. Swim out of the rip current, which is narrow, then into shore."
If you can't swim away from it, McCrady says not to panic. He suggests swimmers remain calm and not work against it. "If you let it carry you, eventually, it will stop taking you away from the shore," McCrady said.
The information comes too late for the LaMotte family. But Sandee LaMotte says she has a different solution.
"At the very least, on a red flag day, they should shut the beach down," LaMotte said. "If they want to take our money, they need to make sure they save our lives."