The beach can be a relaxing spot to bask in the warm sun and feel the soft sand between one’s toes, but rip currents on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts, and even the Great Lakes, this year have claimed dozens of lives and endangered many more swimmers.
Air Force 1st Lt. Micah Grissom was visiting Princess Beach near Destin, Florida, May 13 when he sprang into action to save the life of a distressed swimmer caught in one of those deadly currents.
When Grissom, assigned to the 96th Operations Support Squadron at nearby Eglin Air Force Base, and his wife of three months at the time, Lydia, arrived at Princess Beach, they saw a frantic scene playing out on the sandy shore. People were pointing out to the ocean, a woman was on the phone with 911, and a group of people were huddled by the water’s edge, looking out. As the 25-year-old Colorado native scanned the scene, he saw three swimmers who appeared to be in trouble approximately 20-30 yards away in the deeper water between sandbars.
The group of three included a couple who had been dragged into the rip current and a swimmer who had initially tried to help but got swept up in the rip current himself.
Grissom also noticed double red flags, meaning the water was closed to the public due to high surf and strong currents. At first, he was unsure if the swimmers were at risk or just enjoying the waves. After asking some onlookers about the situation, Grissom decided he wanted to investigate.
“I told my wife I wanted to go and check it out, just to see if something was wrong, because it can’t hurt to go and check on people and just ask if they are okay,” he said.
Springing into action, he entered the water and allowed the strong currents to pull him closer to the distressed swimmers. He reached them quickly, and it was clear they were not okay. The female swimmer had swallowed a lot of water and was semi-conscious, her limp body supported by the two male swimmers. Due to the severity of the situation and the difficulty the other two men were having, the group decided Grissom would try to save her.
Having aquatic-rescue experience himself from the Merchant Marine Academy prior to commissioning in the Air Force, Grissom started his rescue attempt, despite never having encountered a rip current before.
At first, he tried to use a side stroke to get himself and the female swimmer out of the rip current and safely to land, but the strength and force of the swiftly moving water made this task impossible.
“It’s very deceptive just looking at it from the shoreline,” Grissom said. “I mean you could see the waves crashing overhead, but you don’t realize just how strong the water is until you’re in it and you feel the pull of the ocean bringing you out to sea. So, when I was out there trying to swim against the rip current with her, it was just a big struggle — and it would have been, even if I was alone.
“It’s hard enough to attempt to swim against it by yourself, but then you add another person, and it’s nearly impossible,” Grissom said.
Switching tactics, Grissom decided that he had to use the waves to his advantage. As a wave broke, Grissom would launch the woman’s body forward with as much force as he could muster to get her closer to shore. But the depth of the water robbed him of the ability to push off the ocean floor as his feet could not reach it. He didn’t have enough power to move her very far.
Despite being a devoted scuba diver and snorkeler, the enormous pull of the rip tide proved to be a larger problem than he anticipated. After each toss of her body, Grissom would get pulled underwater and have to first get air himself before quickly swimming to keep her afloat, then restarting the entire process.
“Reality hit me and I thought, ‘dang, we’re not able to fight this.’ I did fear that [the rip current would win],” he said. “I think I knew that I’d be able to make it out, but with this woman, the clock’s just ticking because she had taken in a lot of water. … I knew we had to get her out, and that was terrifying to think about. I just became very desperate. I’m like. I have to get her out now.”
Throughout this whole ordeal, he and the female swimmer did not speak at all, he noted. She was just eerily calm and compliant with the entire situation; whether she had accepted her fate or was too tired to respond is unknown.
Rip currents are prevalent along the East, Gulf and West coasts of the U.S., as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, over 100 deaths a year are due to rip currents in U.S. waters.
One young man was simply wading in knee-deep water at an Oregon beach May 12 when he was knocked over by a wave and pulled out into the Pacific Ocean by a rip current.
On the July 4th weekend, lifeguards were forced to pull almost 200 swimmers out of the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks due to powerful rip currents. These rescues followed at least 10 deaths in June due to rip currents in Alabama and Florida.
On Sunday, eight people were rescued from a rip current in Lake Michigan, near Park Township, Michigan. Three people were pulled out into the lake by rough waters, and the five people who tried to rescue them also had to be rescued.
Rip currents pose a dangerous threat even to athletes. On June 27, Ryan Mallett, a former NFL quarterback, died in a rip current near Destin.
The dangers that rip currents pose were not lost on Grissom’s wife and other bystanders who were watching fearfully on the shore as he struggled to save the woman’s life.
Eventually, Grissom was able to get his tiptoes to the sandy ocean floor and get firmer footing to propel the woman forward with his slow but productive tossing method. Once he was able to stand, he beelined towards the shore, holding her in his arms.
When they emerged from the water, friends of the couple trapped in the rip current descended upon the female swimmer and forced her to vomit up sea water and help her regain consciousness as medics arrived on the scene. Meanwhile, Lydia ran towards her husband to make sure he was okay.
With adrenaline seizing through his veins during the rescue, the aftermath — an utter lack of energy and fatigue — didn’t hit until Grissom was safely on dry land.
Because he was totally focused on the woman’s safety, Grissom doesn’t remember exactly how the two male swimmers made it back to shore, but they did. Afterward, they told Grissom that God had sent him to the beach to save them that day.
“I absolutely agree, because when we were heading to the beach, we weren’t even planning to go to that beach,” Grissom said. The only reason Lydia and he ended up at Princess Beach was because they had noticed some available nearby parking.
Although the beginning of Grissom’s day at the beach turned into a harrowing ordeal, his heroic actions saved at least one life, possibly more. He was then able to to enjoy the rest of his beach day in peace with Lydia.
Georgina DiNardo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News and a recent graduate of American University, specializing in journalism, psychology, and photography in Washington, D.C.