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Death toll rises along Panhandle beaches

This year 18 have drowned, and criticism has grown as beach patrols complain that warnings go unheeded.

Associated Press
Published July 15, 2003

PANAMA CITY BEACH - An Alabama man is the 18th drowning victim this year on Gulf of Mexico beaches in the Florida Panhandle, where authorities are under growing pressure to curtail the deaths.

Walter Parker Jr., 33, of Selma, Ala., died Sunday at Gulf Coast Medical Center in neighboring Panama City.

Parker was vacationing here with other family members, who said they were unaware that red flags flying up and down the beach meant swimmers should stay out of the water due to dangerous surf and rip currents.

"We saw lots of people swimming too so we thought it was okay," said Lenora Cosby, Parker's sister-in-law.

Beach Patrol officials said they spent the day telling people to stay out of the water, including the area where Parker drowned. Parker's relatives said they, personally, were never warned.

Similar complaints have followed other recent drownings along a 100-mile stretch of the Panhandle from Panama City to Pensacola.

Beach patrollers said they are frustrated because many people who got out of the water after being warned went back in when they left for another section of beach.

Panama City Beach officials last week agreed to add symbols showing a swimmer inside a circle with a slash through it to clarify the meaning of the red flags, but the new flags haven't yet been obtained. Panhandle beaches also fly blue or green flags when conditions are safe and yellow flags to urge caution in moderate danger.

Several other people were rescued here Sunday. One, Timothy P. Cole, 16, of Smyrna, Tenn., remained in critical condition Monday at Bay Medical Center in Panama City, police said.

The body of a 71-year-old Texas man, whose identity was withheld, was recovered at Navarre Beach. Medical examiners had not yet determined a cause of death Monday, but Santa Rosa County sheriff's spokesman Jerry Henderson said the man had been on heart medication and natural causes, not drowning, are suspected.

Few Panhandle beaches have lifeguards, and nearly all of the drowning deaths in the region have occurred on unguarded beaches, including Parker's.

The U.S. Lifesaving Association has recommended more lifeguards, but local officials say that would cost too much.

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