It's been 10 years since Mike Hauser pulled a lifeless body from the waters near Grayton Beach, but he still remembers the events of that day knocking him to his knees.
"Looking back, it's all kind of in slow motion," Hauser said. "It was the first time I've seen, or touched, a dead body. Everything happened so quickly."
It was June 8, 2003, and Hauser was out surfing with some of his buddies near Grayton Beach. After exiting the water for what he thought would be the last time that day, sirens began to ring out and Hauser immediately returned to the beach fearing one of his buddies was in trouble.
Little did he know, the actions he was about to take would involve him in one of the biggest tragedies to ever occur along the beaches of Walton and Okaloosa County — Black Sunday. All told, eight people lost their lives due to drowning or injuries sustained due to rough surf on that day.
"Everybody was crowded around on the beach, there were hundreds of people just standing there," said Hauser, who is now 29 years old. "There was a guy laying face down in the water, so what do you do? It was like it wasn't happening, and it was in a movie picture frame."
"Somebody had to do something," he said, adding that there were two deputies in the water trying to recover the bodies of former CNN correspondent Larry LaMotte and Ken Brindley, who drowned trying to rescue LaMotte. "I kind of took it upon myself. The helicopter was telling us to stay out of the water, but it's a good thing we didn't. Maybe we helped save those two officers' lives."
Running into the water, Hauser said he and his buddy were able to put LaMotte's body on their surfboard and bring him back to the shore.
"When we got him to the beach, his wife and little boy were there and that's what did it for me, I just lost it," Hauser said. "It took every drop of energy I had, and I just dropped to my knees."
"I beat myself up for two weeks after it had happened," he said. "I was just a 19-year-old kid right out of high school."
Walton County Sheriff's Office Lt. Robert Gray was on beach patrol for Black Sunday, and he told The Sun that it was a day he will never forget.
"It was probably the worst day I've ever had while on beach patrol," Gray said. "I was in the water multiple times that day; it was just a bad day all-around."
Looking back, Gray said despite the conditions and warnings, people kept entering the water.
"I just hate that we couldn't rescue everyone," he said.
Cause for change
The events of Black Sunday ultimately led to the formation of the South Walton Fire District's Beach Safety Program, which is in its eighth season. At the time, there were no professional lifeguard agencies along the beaches, only local beach services.
"Black Sunday was the impetus for obviously a lot of concern," said Gary Wise, SWFD beach safety chief. "It took a little time to think and come up with the reports and plans for the program."
Commuting between Palm Beach and Walton County, Wise was approached in 2005 to help get the program off its feet, and in 2006 the fire district placed six lifeguard towers along its 26-miles of beach. Currently they have nine towers and approximately 30 lifeguards on duty.
"One of the big things that was lacking at the time was the educational network," Wise told The Sun. "One of the things that was needed was the ability to give beach patrons the information to understand better, and that wasn't being done."
"That's the primary job of the lifeguard, to educate these patrons and to prevent those bad situations from happening," Wise added.
And while lifeguards can educate beachgoers, they cannot physically restrain people from going into the water, which can pose problems. Although it sounds a bit harsh, Wise says common sense plays a large role in making the appropriate decision.
"You can tell them it's risky and dangerous, but they are still going to put themselves in danger and others at risk."
A beach safety perspective
As for Black Sunday, Wise told The Sun that he and his son were at the beach near Pompano Joe's "checking out the surf." As the morning unfolded, the rip currents began to gain strength, Wise said.
"It was a combination of strong flow from one direction, the wind blowing onshore, and it was one of those situations were there were so many outgoing rip currents that people didn't know when or where to go," he said. "They didn't know whether or not to go in the water."
Leading up to that day, Wise said the weather had been pretty bad, so the group of visitors that was already in town had "cabin fever" and wanted to get into the water since it was sunny that Sunday. Combine that with new visitors coming to town who were not aware of the earlier turbulent conditions, and "everything had conspired for a dangerous situation."
For Wise, the only thing to do was to try and warn as many people as possible about the conditions. At one point, he even saw people on the beach walking around someone who had been pulled from the water and was being administered CPR, and then they would head toward the water.
"It was just a complete lack of respect for what was happening at the time," Wise told The Sun.
A positive change
Since that tragic day, Wise said his beach safety lifeguards have achieved "great numbers" as far as preventative actions, educational contacts and rescues.
For lifeguards, rescuing swimmers is the "last line" of defense. And based on the numbers his guards have been reporting, plenty of beachgoers are being warned about beach conditions ahead of time.
"We're coming up, in our primary zones, on one-million contacts," Wise said. "We've also surpassed one-hundred thousand preventative actions, which is where a person is already in imminent danger."
"These are absolutely phenomenal results," he added.
Wise said approximately 99 percent of the rescues his guards perform occur outside of the areas they are contracted to protect. Many rescues also happen after beach safety hours, which are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from the second Saturday in March to the last Sunday in September.
Since Black Sunday, 100 percent of the drownings in Walton County have come in areas that were not patrolled by lifeguards, or fell outside of contracted areas, Wise told The Sun.
"Many of those drowning came in sight of the beach safety warning poles that are there," he said. "While sending the correct message, those poles don't physically make a difference in eliminating drownings."
At the end of the day, Wise said the key is to have an education-first program. To ensure that beachgoers stay safe, the SWFD is continually training new guards through its junior lifeguard program, which currently has 60 members.
"We are trying to make a difference, focus on education and are doing the best we can do," he said. "My motto is very simple; if you don't know, don't go. Too many people overestimate their ability."
With the memories of Black Sunday still tucked away in his mind, Hauser said he doesn't reflect on that day as much as he used to, but the day's tragic events are always going to stay with him.
"I'll always remember that little boy who lost his dad," he said. "I've got a seven-year-old daughter and I can't imagine her not having her dad."
"Whether people say I did the right thing or the wrong thing, I know in my mind I did what was right," Hauser added. "People just don't know that it can be really dangerous out there, especially if you catch it at the wrong time."
The following are those who drowned on June 8, 2003, or as a result of injuries in the water.
- Marietta Yakstis, 62, of Illinois, at Eastern Lake
- David Che-Hsien Huang, 40, of Houston, at Dune Allen
- Curtis Corhan, 53, of Bunker Creek, at Blue Mountain Beach
- Larry LaMotte, 60, of Atlanta, at Grayton Beach
- Ken Brindley, 36, of Conway, Ark., at Grayton Beach; trying to save LaMotte
- Bob Heymeyer, 53, St. Louis, Mo., near Capt. Dave's restaurant
- Shalyn Cuadrado, 32, of Metairie, La., along Old 98
- Marla Amos, 31, of Sellersburg, Ind., at James Lee Park
Flag Warning System:
Double Red Flag: Water is closed to public (dangerous water conditions)
Red Flag: High Hazard (high surf and/or strong currents)
Yellow Flag: Medium Hazard (moderate surf and/or currents)
Green Flag: Low Hazard (calm conditions, exercise caution)
Purple Flag: Marine Pests Present (jellyfish, stingrays, dangerous fish)
How To Identify A Rip Current
One or more of the following features indicate the presence of a rip current:
Darker color surf, indicating deeper water
Murky brown water caused by sand stirred up on the bottom
Smaller unorganized waves, alongside more evenly breaking waves over a sand bar
Waves breaking further out to sea on both sides of the rip current
What To Do If You See Someone Else Caught In A Rip Current:
Notify a lifeguard
Have someone call 911, give accurate landmarks
Do not enter the water, you too will be caught in the current
Throw them a flotation device
Try not to lose sight of the victim
What To Do If You’re Caught In A Rip Current:
Don’t panic or swim against the current
Relax, float with the current until it dissipates
Swim parallel to shore and back in
Of course the best way to avoid a rip current is to know the surf conditions before entering the water.