Three tourists are dead after swimming in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City Beach, Florida, due to dangerous surf conditions. The deaths occurred over the weekend in separate incidents, with police responding to three fatal water incidents behind different resorts. These recent fatalities bring the total number of beach fatalities along the Bay County coast to seven within just nine days, making it the highest number of beach fatalities in a single locale in the US for 2023. It is uncertain whether the victims drowned or experienced other medical emergencies while in the water, but the number of recent fatalities highlights the serious risks associated with rip currents and the importance of heeding warning flags posted by lifeguards.
By Nathan Cobb & Donah Voyles Pulver; June 25, 2023
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida − Three more tourists died after swimming in the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend under dangerous surf conditions.
The deaths occurred Saturday off of Panama City Beach, according to a release, which said police responded to “three separate fatal water incidents behind three different resorts.” The city lists them as “fatal water incidents” because officials have said it is not known whether the victims drowned or had another medical emergency in the water.
The toll is now seven along the coast of Bay County within nine days – the highest number of beach fatalities for any single locale in the U.S. for 2023, according to a database kept by the National Weather Service. Less than a half hour to the northwest in Walton County, one person died on Thursday in similar conditions at Blue Mountain Beach and another died Saturday at Miramar Beach, the second this year on that beach, according to the weather service.
Rip current deaths trending up
Rip current deaths, which include fatalities from high surf and sneaker waves, have trended up nationwide in recent years, hitting a high of 113 in 2021, according to the weather service.
Last year, 69 deaths were reported. Already this year, 60 surf zone-related deaths have occurred, including 27 in Florida. Thirteen people have died in Puerto Rico.
Dave Benjamin, co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, has called beach drownings a “neglected public health issue” that’s entirely preventable.
What is known about the Panama City Beach victims?
All of the victims Saturday in Panama City Beach were tourists who died after grappling with rip currents, and in every instance but one, double red flags were posted, meaning the gulf was closed to swimmers, who risked being penalized with a $500 fine.
- The first fatal incident on Saturday occurred about noon near Days Inn by Wyndham Panama City Beach. The victim was Kimberly Moore, 39, of Lithonia, Georgia.
- The second occurred about an hour later near Boardwalk Beach Resort. The victim was Morytt Burden, 63, of Lithia Springs, Georgia.
- The third happened about 4:20 p.m. near Emerald Isle Beach Resort. The victim was Donald Wixon, 68, of Canton, Michigan.
“The conditions at the time were severe, with double red flags indicating extreme water hazards,” the release says. “The Panama City Beach Police Department and Beach Safety implore the public to always heed the double red flag warnings and always be aware of the dangers that can accompany these conditions.
Over the past 10 days, there were reports of 70 distressed swimmers, about 40 of them on Saturday.
“Double red-flag conditions have existed on the beach for the last week,” the release reads. “Double red flags mean you are not allowed in the Gulf.”