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SUNSET BEACH — When two people died July 3 after getting caught in rip currents off Sunset Beach, it was the first time in 17 years anyone had died that way, Sunset Beach Police Chief Lisa Massey said.
For Sunset Beach Fire Chief Kevin Dempsey, the July 3 drownings of 54-year-old Chief District Judge Mitch McLean of Wilkesboro and the woman he had tried to rescue, 55-year-old Mary Anne Galway of Waxhaw, were the first he’d known in his 14 years with the town.
“We were on the scene in 2.5 minutes,” Dempsey said of the events that day on the beach at the Third Street access.
Massey and Dempsey were speaking during a specially called town meeting Monday, Aug. 5, to address beach safety.
Conditions July 3 were rare and perfect for rip currents, which were blamed for two other drownings that week in Brunswick County: one in Ocean Isle Beach and another in Holden Beach.
A Bermuda high-pressure system had stalled close to shore, causing rip currents, Massey said.
They were among town officials who, along with residents, spoke about ways to improve safety and respond better in the future.
“A whole lot of different questions need to be answered,” said Sunset Beach resident Carol Santavicca.
Rip currents, she said, affect the entire coast.
“What possible precautions can we take other than to warn people they can happen that quick?” she said.
Former town beach code enforcement officer Bob Tone said he was there “when all this went down. You should be proud of the job the fire department and police department did.
“There’s nothing more I see they could’ve done to help those people,” he said. “They were both overwhelmed.”
Town public works director Dustin Graham showed a rip current warning sign that could be used to alert beachgoers. Council members later voted to buy 70 of the signs for a total cost of $1,313, with two signs to be placed at each of the beach access ways.
While residents spoke favorably of such signs, they said the public also needs to be educated.
Island resident Richard Hilderman said while a sign will warn people, “the problem is once they’re in the current, their chance of surviving decreases immensely. What are you going to do? Why not try to get up information on preventing it?”
Resident John Walz said the day of the drownings, there were no warnings about conditions by beach patrol.
“The next day, we were warned,” he said, adding rental agencies could help in the efforts, as well.
“People need to be informed,” he said. “I could’ve been like the judge — drowned.”
Judy Rodocker of Raleigh and Sunset Village said she was one of five nurses who tried to help save lives on the beach that day.
“We all started working before anybody else go there,” she said. “What is a life worth? It’s worth any and everything.”
It’s “very important we do our best to help others understand their responsibility in going out there,” she said. “You cannot force people to educate themselves to learn this.”
Rodocker said she favors a suggested flag system that could be used to warn beachgoers about ocean conditions.
During a discussion about the possibility of hiring lifeguards, town attorney Michael Isenberg said, “It’s pretty clear the more the town does like hiring lifeguards, the greater your risk of liability, because you have assumed a duty when you provide a lifeguard.”
Isenberg said the only time towns are sued is when they have lifeguards. Expert advice he said he’s received is: “Whatever your town does, do not hire lifeguards.”
Judges have written the ocean is a dangerous place, and water below the high-water mark belongs to the state, he said.
“People are assuming risk if they go out in the ocean,” Isenberg said. “If you put lifeguards, then you’ve assumed a duty to protect the people.”
Instead, he said, many municipalities are going to a “broad warning system” to advise people of problems.
He said it would be good if “we could get the state to pass a general law applicable to the whole state” that would provide towns some qualified immunity if they provided lifeguard services.
Town councilman Wilson Sherrill said he will broach the topic when he attends an upcoming meeting of the Brunswick Beaches Consortium at 10 a.m. Aug. 15 at the N.C. Baptist Assembly in Caswell Beach.
Former Brunswick County Emergency Services director Randy Thompson, who also attended Monday’s meeting, advised inviting a “warning coordinator” from the National Weather Service to community discussions as well.
“I honestly think your beach consortium pooling together all options is going to be the best way,” Thompson said. “I do think you need to have right here in Sunset Beach a relationship with your warning coordinator with the National Weather Service.”
Laura Lewis is a staff writer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email@example.com.