Father, daughter died battling rip current

Danger lurks beneath water this time of year

September 16, 2006|By Sandy Alexander and Tyrone Richardson | Sandy Alexander and Tyrone Richardson,sun reporters


An article in Saturday's Maryland section about the drownings of a Columbia man and his 15-year-old daughter off Ocean City on Thursday reported that Douglas and Amy Martin were the first water-related fatalities at the Atlantic resort this year. A man died in the surf near 126th Street in early July, but the death has not been classified as a drowning because the beach patrol was never notified of autopsy results, said Lt. Ward Kovacs, a beach patrol spokesman.

When Douglas Martin swam into the rough waters off Ocean City Thursday in a desperate attempt to save his 15-year-old daughter from a swiftly moving rip current, he made a choice that was extraordinarily selfless and, friends and family say, completely expected.

"Douglas was on his way back [to shore] but knew that Amy was in trouble, and he went back to get her -- and that is what any good dad would do," said Martin's sister-in-law, Karen Bassler. "It's not surprising that he went back. That is exactly what he would do."

The choppy ocean water proved deadly for the 44-year-old Columbia man and his daughter, who became the first water-related fatalities in Ocean City this year.

Two more of Martin's children who were swimming off the 78th Street beach about 6 p.m. survived. Emily, 17, swam to shore and Mary, 13, was able to float on her back until she was rescued by emergency workers.

Their mother, Jeanne, and three younger sisters were at a nearby townhouse the family was borrowing from friends.

A rip current advisory had been issued by the National Weather Service earlier in the day.

"It was choppy," said Sgt. Rick Cawthern of the Ocean City Beach Patrol, who responded to the scene.

The beach patrol lifeguards completed their day at 5:30 p.m., so none was on duty when the family went swimming.

"If they had stayed out of the water until [Friday], or swam ... close to a lifeguard, it could have been prevented," Cawthern said.

Mike Murphy, Douglas Martin's brother-in-law, said the Florida native was a strong swimmer and recently had explained to his children the dangers of rip currents.

Murphy wrote in an e-mailed statement that Martin was "a hardworking, gentle and kind man."

Bassler, of Catonsville, stood in front of the Martins' two-story brick home in Columbia's village of Long Reach yesterday and talked about her brother-in-law.

"Doug was all about God with everything in his life," Bassler said as she held up a picture of him. "This was Doug all the time -- always smiling and saying God has a plan."

Bassler said Martin, an employee of the National Security Agency, drove Emily from Ocean City to Columbia on Tuesday so she could attend classes at Howard Community College. When the two returned to Ocean City on Thursday, Martin decided to go to the beach with his three eldest daughters before darkness settled in.

Rip currents -- often called rip tides -- commonly form in the Ocean City area when rough weather stirs up the ocean floor and creates breaks, or indentations in the sand bar, explained Sgt. Tim Uebel, a member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. Water coming into shore will circulate back out through the channels, creating an area where the current is moving away from shore.

Rip currents usually stir up sand from the bottom of the ocean as they circulate, so from above, the areas look lighter or discolored. They also are marked by a lack of waves forming or breaking.

But for a swimmer, it can be much more difficult to spot the current, Uebel said.

"It's like a treadmill in the water," he said. "It pulls you out to sea, in deeper water. Typically people start panicking."

Efforts to swim against the current can become deadly when people become exhausted. The best advice, Uebel said, is for swimmers to let the current carry them to its end, and then swim parallel to shore for a time before trying to swim back in.

Annually, rip currents are responsible for 95 percent of the beach patrol's 2,000 or more rescues, Uebel said.

Prior to Thursday, there were no deaths this year and 2,609 rescues, according to the Ocean City Beach Patrol.

Lifeguards on stands and in trucks will watch the Ocean City beach every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through Sept. 24, and truck patrols will continue through Oct. 15, Uebel said.

On Thursday, bystanders called 911 upon seeing the Martin family struggling with the current. Nearly a dozen off-duty beach patrol members responded to radio calls and phone calls, along with emergency medical services and the Coast Guard, Cawthern said.

He recalled swimming into the water after paramedic and former beach patrol member Del Baker spotted Martin "way off shore ... well beyond the breakers."

Cawthern said Martin was floating face-down in the water when he and Baker reached him and the two rescuers performed CPR as they maneuvered him to a Coast Guard boat. Shortly after, a rescue worker on the boat spotted Amy and pulled her from the ocean.

The two were taken to shore, where paramedics took them to Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin. The father was pronounced dead on arrival and his daughter died an hour later, said Ocean City police spokesman Pfc. Barry Neeb.

"People just don't realize how many bad rip tides we get this time of year, especially with hurricanes or storms out in the ocean," said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Brian Sullivan. "Even in hip-deep water, you can be pulled out."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Chris Guy contributed to this article.

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