2 years after Wake Forest seniors died at Emerald Isle, new rip currents forecast could save others

Monday, May 24, 2021
2 years after teens died, new rip current forecast could save others
Rip currents account for at least 100 American deaths every year and as much as 80% of rescues.

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. (WTVD) -- There may not be anything as tranquil -- or as treacherous -- as the ocean, and John and Suzi Merical are still grappling with that tragic reality.

"She'd always get out of the water with a big smile from ear to ear," Suzi says of her late daughter, Paige. "She was such a good swimmer that I trusted her enough. I just thought she'd be fine."

It was two years ago this spring when the 17-year-old Paige, a senior at Wake Forest High School, took a day trip to Emerald Isle with some friends. The weather was perfect and the surf pretty calm, though winds were whipping at up to 30 mph. This umpteenth visit to the beach, however, would be the teenager's last.

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"I thought rip currents affected only people who were really far out," John said. "I didn't realize they could hit you in shallow water. They were up to their knees."

Watch this video to learn what to do if you're ever caught in a rip current.

According to investigators, Paige and another friend, Ian Lewis, got knocked down by a wave and then were dragged out to sea by a rip current, which is a narrow flow of water moving away from the beach that can move at up to one to two feet per second.

Emerald Isle Fire and Rescue was able to locate and rescue Paige and get her to a hospital, but she was later declared brain dead and unable to recover. Lewis also died.

"Every ounce of air just exited out of my body because I couldn't breathe anymore," Suzi said. "I wish I knew what I know now. Both of them could have survived. There's no reason they had to die that day."

The U.S. Lifesaving Association, a major nonprofit organization of lifeguards and water rescue teams, estimates rip currents account for at least 100 American deaths every year, and as much as 80% of rescues. The currents can develop even at low tides around breaks in sandbars, coral, or adjacent to piers and jetties. Rip currents are also not exclusive to oceans - they can even form at the Great Lakes.

"Rip currents can happen anywhere you have waves," Dr. Greg Dusek, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association (NOAA), said. "The best thing you can do is swim at a lifeguard beach and if you're not sure if it's hazardous, then talk to the lifeguard before you enter the water."

Dusek, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, is now at the forefront of a new effort to reduce the death toll from rip currents. After a decade of research and development -- including at North Carolina's Outer Banks -- NOAA this summer is debuting the first ever national rip current forecast model. The forecast is not unlike a weather forecast, and estimates the potential of danger related to currents.

While weather forecasting relies on satellites, though, this model is based on two years of old-fashioned note taking from lifeguard observations -- and readings from 200 water level stations at piers across the country that measure depth and currents every six minutes. The forecasts are now available for most of the East Coast, Southern California, Puerto Rico, Oahu and Guam.

"The big thing we're focusing on is getting that information to people before they go to the beach," Dusek said. "What we're encouraging people to do is to look, check out your beach hazards before choosing your beach."

How to communicate those risks, however, may be up to meteorologists, including ABC11 Chief Meteorologist Don Schwenneker.

"I think it's going to be a great tool for us," Schwenneker said. "This time of year everyone wants that beach forecast as early in the week as they can get it. It might be worth the extra hour drive to know you'll be able to get in the water that weekend as opposed to going to the beach and having it closed by the lifeguards because those rip currents are terrible."

For the Mericals, weekends at the beach can never be the same, but if Paige's legacy helps save another life -- that's like saving a whole world.

"We don't want anyone to forget her."

Tips from NOAA's Rip Current Survival Guide

Relax. Rip currents don't pull you under.

A rip current is a natural treadmill that travels an average speed of 1-2 feet per second, but has been measured as fast as 8 feet per second -- faster than an Olympic swimmer. Trying to swim against a rip current will only use up your energy; energy you need to survive and escape the rip current.

Do NOT try to swim directly into to shore. Swim along the shoreline until you escape the current's pull. When free from the pull of the current, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore.

If you feel you can't reach shore, relax, face the shore, and call or wave for help. Remember: If in doubt, don't go out!

If at all possible, only swim at beaches with lifeguards.

If you choose to swim on beaches without a lifeguard, never swim alone. Take a friend and have that person take a cell phone so that person can call 911 for help.