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Beachgoers Scream for Help On Shore As Swimmers Sucked Under By Riptide With AM-Beach

May 31, 1994

Beachgoers Scream for Help On Shore As Swimmers Sucked Under By Riptide With AM-Beach Drownings-Riptides

AMERICAN BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Angel Waters felt the riptide sucking her out to sea and was certain she was drowning.

″Then some man came and took a hold of my arm. He pulled me out. I’m just glad I got out,″ the 12-year-old told The Florida Times-Union.

Angel was lucky. Five other swimmers drowned in a frantic few minutes Monday at a beach without lifeguards.

About 5,000 people crowded the beach here, on northeast Florida’s Amelia Island, for the African-American Kuumba Festival. Many screamed for help after swimmers were spotted struggling in the surf.

Three people were dragged under but survived.

″We think one boy got in trouble and they all tried to help,″ said Mike Greene, chief of the Nassau County Fire and Rescue Department. There was ″mass confusion and hysteria.″

The beach has signs: ″No Lifeguard. Swim At Your Own Risk.″ The National Weather Service and other weather agencies had not issued warnings to swimmers.

Former lifeguard Thomas Anderson, a Jacksonville minister, said he and another rescuer reached an 11-year-old boy.

″He looked over at me and yelled, ’I can’t swim with the boy 3/8 Come over and take him,″ Anderson said Tuesday. ″When I got him, he said, ’There’s another one face down behind you.‴

Anderson, 44, struggled back to shore with the boy, who turned out to be Angel’s 11-year-old brother, Antoine Waters. A fatigued Anderson then headed back for a woman.

″She was heavy. I was tired, I was getting exhausted,″ he said. ″My arms were heavy. My legs were aching.″

Riptides, sometimes incorrectly described as undertow, occur when wind causes water pressure to build up on the beach side of a sand bar. Part of the sand bar collapses as pressure builds. Water rushes through the gap, creating a powerful column of water flowing from the beach out to sea.

Authorities believe the drownings included both those initially swept out by a riptide and would-be rescuers.

″There were people running on the beach screaming, ’Help 3/8 Help them 3/8 They’re drowning 3/8‴ Nassau County Sheriff Ray Geiger said.

Johnny Hills Jr., 11; Phillip Jerome McWhite, 23; and Lydia Sapp, 46; all of Jacksonville, were among the dead. The other two victims, both adult women, were from out of state and their relatives had not yet been contacted.

The drownings provoked people on the Nassau County beach to question why no lifeguards were present.

″He was my son, my oldest son,″ a weeping Johnny Hills, father of the dead 11-year-old, told the Times-Union. ″I don’t know why there wasn’t anyone there to help him. I can’t believe it.″

John Crawford, chairman of the Nassau County Commission, said at a news conference that the county decided in 1990 not to fund lifeguards on county beaches because of the $100,000-a-year cost.

The issue will be discussed at a June 27 commission meeting, Crawford said. Before the five drownings on the predominantly black beach, there had been only two drownings on county beaches since lifeguard service was stopped.

The city of Fernandina Beach and some of the plush resorts in Nassau County have their own lifeguards.

American Beach was founded by A.L. Lewis, president of the Afro-American Insurance Co. His great-granddaughter, Mavynee Betsch, lives in the town.

″American Beach is the public access beach for the county,″ she said. ″It is our right to have a lifeguard.″

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