RALEIGH, N.C. – Beth McLean had just greeted her husband, a judge who was finally off work and able to join the family vacation at Sunset Beach. After days of rain, beachgoers were ecstatic at the sunny skies, and McLean hugged and kissed the father of their two boys.
In an instant, that tranquil scene turned chaotic, as vacationers playing in the surf were caught in a rip current — a channel of water that moves from the shore out to sea, often faster than any human can swim.
"It was pandemonium," Beth McLean said. "People were laid out on the beach."
She and her husband, Mitchell, ran into the water to help people. The waves knocked down Beth, a strong swimmer, when she got waist-deep. Despite his fear of water, Mitchell McLean kept going. The chief District Court judge known for his soft heart drowned trying to save strangers, one of four who drowned July 3 and 4 on Brunswick County beaches.
Those deaths — and the deaths of three men off South Carolina beaches in that same time frame — have officials asking if lifeguards or warning flags are needed in an area unusually devoid of them.
Beth McLean, both grieving and angry, says yes.
"There were so many good Samaritans that day" who tried to save her husband, she said. "People were good and so wonderful. But I am very upset about the fact that there were not even flags or anything, that we were all left to our own devices for such a long time. It was just so senseless ."
McLean is one of the more than 100 people that the U.S. Lifesaving Association estimates die each year in rip currents, usually with little attention because the deaths typically occur one at a time .
The deadly currents — sometimes incorrectly referred to as a rip tide or undertow — pull swimmers not under the water but out to sea. The advice to survive them seems simple: Don't fight the current and swim parallel to shore until you are out of it, then turn toward the beach. However, the average swimmer often panics.
Several conditions can cause rip currents, which typically develop in areas where the bottom is uneven and around jetties or piers. They can even attract swimmers because they're a seemingly calm area of water between the waves.
Over the July 4th holiday week, the severe rip currents mostly were due to winds that blew across the Atlantic Ocean from the right direction, said Mark Bacon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington. That created larger waves pushing more water onto the beach — and all that water has to flow back to sea, resulting in rip currents.
Meteorologists give extensive talks in the community about staying safe in a rip current, Bacon said, especially to kids at schools. But residents hear those talks, not folks coming for vacation.
"It's a bigger danger for the vacationer," Bacon said. "A lot of them are not familiar with swimming in the ocean anyway. It's not like a lake or a river."
Bacon said it's not uncommon for would-be rescuers to succumb to the currents, much like Mitchell McLean did.
McLean's wife said he died trying to be a Good Samaritan. His reputation for helping others was known in their hometown, where more than 1,000 people came to pay their respects at his funeral.
Beth McLean, a stay-at-home mom, described her husband of 21 years as "an awesome man and the love of my life." He coached youth basketball, and many of those boys thought of the McLeans as their parents, calling them "Mom" and "Dad." Those kids joined the McLeans for holiday dinners, and their home was always full. When a boy got in trouble, he called Mitchell McLean. He was known for leaving the bench and talking with troubled kids, Beth McLean said.
That attitude was apparent on the beach the day Mitchell McLean died, when the couple went into the water to help anyone they could, especially because parents were screaming for children, Beth McLean said. The other person who drowned on the beach that day was a 55-year-old woman.
When Beth got back to shore, she found her 12-year-old son, Fin, then realized 14-year-old Jackson was being pulled from the water. Soon, strangers pulled Mitchell to shore on a boogie board, and people performed CPR on him for 20 minutes, she said, before rescue workers arrived.
"This is Elizabeth, this is Elizabeth. Wake up, wake up," she recalled saying to her husband as her sons cried.
No Brunswick County beach has lifeguards, which isn't the norm, said Chris Brewster, president of the California-based U.S. Lifesaving Association.
"It is very unusual in the U.S. to have tourist areas without lifeguarded beaches available," he said.
The association recommends hiring lifeguards for areas where people congregate, such as parking areas. The association's statistics have shown consistently for the past 10 years that there is only one drowning death for every 18 million beach visits in areas with lifeguards.
Sunset Beach Mayor Richard Cerrato agreed it's time for his town to provide some sort of help. "It's time for all of us to think out of the box and put aside concerns about liability and see if we can do things a lot better," he said.
The town council and a consortium of representatives from other nearby towns both plan to consider implementing flags or lifeguards in the coming weeks.
County emergency services director Anthony Marzano has been asked for his opinion by local officials — it's not up to the county to install flags or hire lifeguards. He is an advocate for flags, recalling vacationing as a boy on a Florida beach that used them.
"Even children understand the concept of green, yellow, red. ... I remember the days the yellow flag went up, and we didn't go to the beach that day," he said.
The McLean family had visited a beach that used the warning flags just two weeks before Mitchell McLean died.
"We look at those flags without fail," Beth McLean said.
She wants to be an advocate for flags and lifeguards eventually, but not right now. Too much else is on her mind.
"There are days I can't breathe," she said. "There's so much to do and so much going on. When I think of this, the anger part of it keeps me going. To be honest, the beach was my healing place, my love. It was just where I drew my strength. ... It was my favorite place in the whole world. I don't want it not to be anymore, but it's forever ruined."
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc