MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. – Scott Johnson and Mike Murphy were vacationing with their families on a Florida beach when they heard the calls for help.
The two Urbana men and their wives and children were on a beach on the Gulf coast along the Florida Panhandle, late on Thursday afternoon, when a woman and a girl began screaming for help from the water, said Scott McCartney of Urbana, the brother-in-law of both men.
A red flag was flying, meaning swimming was permitted but swimmers were urged to use extreme caution. A few hours earlier, a kayak carrying a 55-year-old man and his teenage son had overturned at a nearby beach. The son was able to swim to shore, but the father drowned in the rough waters – the first drowning of the tourist season in an area notorious for fatalities.
The woman and girl in the water were with two other people on a raft. The nearest lifeguard tower was about 800 yards down the beach.
Murphy got up and ran to the water. He looked back, and Scott Johnson was right behind him.
"I don't think either one of them thought twice about getting in there to help someone else," McCartney said.
The water was rough, and Murphy could feel a rip current – a powerful current of water moving away from the shore – begin to pull him out from the beach, McCartney said. After he reached the girl, it took everything he had to swim back toward the beach.
Murphy looked over at his brother-in-law, who was trying to help the woman, and asked if he was OK. Scott Johnson said yes.
Then another wave hit them, and when Murphy looked again, his brother-in-law was gone.
Murphy brought the girl to shore, and the woman swam in. The two others floated back to shore on the raft.
The South Walton Fire District covers 26 miles of beach with lifeguards at six access points, including one at Miramar Beach. The fire district got the emergency call shortly before 4 p.m.
The nearest lifeguard drove a four-wheel-drive vehicle down the beach and was in the water swimming toward Mr. Johnson within a couple of minutes, said Gary Wise, beach safety director for the fire district.
The rip current had carried Mr. Johnson out about 100 yards. It might as well have been 100 miles for someone fighting the swift current, Deputy Fire Chief Sean Hughes said.
When Wise entered the water, the lifeguard had Mr. Johnson, who was unconscious and not breathing, and was struggling to bring him through an area about 70 yards offshore, where the waves were breaking on a sandbar.
Wise helped the lifeguard put Mr. Johnson on a longboard, and the two swam back to shore with him. Emergency workers began CPR as they moved Mr. Johnson off the beach, and an ambulance took him to a local hospital.
He was pronounced dead at 4:29 p.m.
"So often people charge in with the best of intentions," Wise said. "It's a tragic story. He was trying to do what he thought was the right thing to do. Words can't describe how painful it is for all of us involved."
Wise and Hughes said it is common for a rescuer to become a victim, especially if he is unfamiliar with the Gulf waters.
"It's very, very frustrating for us, and it's devastating for the family," Hughes said.
It doesn't surprise McCartney that Mr. Johnson rushed to help people he didn't even know.
"He'd do anything for anybody," McCartney said. "If you needed help or needed something, he was always there."
Mr. Johnson was married to one of McCartney's sisters. The couple have two children, ages 14 and 12.
"His life really centered around his family," McCartney said.
Mr. Johnson was general manager of Shelby Motors and well-known in the community. He coached Little League and park district baseball and basketball.
He also loved hunting and the outdoors. He hunted deer, quail, pheasant and turkey.
"He always had a smile on his face," McCartney said. "He was just one of the best human beings I think you'd ever meet."