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On Clearwater Beach, a Tampa family's loss gives spring breakers pause

CLEARWATER BEACH — It's spring break, which for many students means sand, surf and binge drinking.

They carry alcohol to the shores, store liquor in their condos, pound back shots at bars. Between fake IDs, older friends and trips to 18-and-up drinking zones, such as Mexico, anyone can imbibe.

Then someone like Molly Ammon, 19, dies.

Though authorities haven't ruled on the cause of the University of Florida freshman's death, her parents say she had been drinking on Madeira Beach with friends Saturday night and never woke up.

"That's terrifying," University of Tampa senior Christy Fitzpatrick, 22, said Tuesday as she lay on Clearwater Beach.

"It'll definitely be in my head for sure," said University of North Florida sophomore Lindsey Chamberlain, 20.

Both said they've unintentionally consumed too much alcohol several times.

"You just don't realize what's happening," Fitzpatrick said.

Molly's death is not the first such tragedy. Several students who spoke to St. Petersburg Times reporters said they've heard all the stories about drunk spring breakers falling off balconies or having their stomachs pumped.

Often students think, "It won't happen to me. It'll happen to someone else," said Kentucky State University student David Jones, 27.

The problem, several said, is that many young partiers haven't learned when to stop, and parent lectures may make little difference.

Ryan Littlefield and Brandan Lewis, both 20-year-old UNF sophomores, said no conversation, no video nor pamphlet could ever show them how much vodka would make them vomit, how much beer would leave them passed out.

They broke their limits to learn where their limits were.

"When I was a freshman, we'd drink till we blacked out," Littlefield said from his beach towel.

Lewis said being in a fraternity his freshman year only exacerbated his alcohol use.

"They pretty much funneled alcohol into my mouth," Lewis said.

Molly Ammon's mother, Angie Ammon, said she tried talking to her daughter about drinking. The mother had Molly, a recent graduate of Tampa's Plant High School, watch an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit that depicted someone's death by alcohol poisoning.

But she and other parents are up against a long-standing tradition.

Alcohol-fueled spring breaks have been an iconic American pastime since the '60s. Then, the hot spots were Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, made legendary by the 1960 Connie Francis film Where the Boys Are.

Younger spring breakers think of rap stars, wet T-shirt contests and lots of drinking, thanks to MTV's annual televised party.

So what's a concerned parent to do?

A lot of education starts at a young age, said Tampa Alcohol Coalition co-chair Ellen Snelling. Parents have to share their values and teach that underage and binge drinking are not acceptable.

"Explain that you care so much about them and don't want anything bad to happen," she said.

She said teens repeatedly hear "don't drink-and-drive," but the message of alcohol's dangers should go beyond that.

"There's the possibility of sexual assault and unprotected sex," she said. "You hear of people falling of balconies or walking into the road. The injuries can be extensive."

Before spring break, Snelling suggests that parents sit down with their children to discuss the dangers. And they should keep in touch with them each day, she said.

In the end, it comes down to students taking responsibility for themselves, said Nichols College sophomore Natalie Wilson, 20.

"It's all about you knowing where you need to stop," she said. "There's a point where you're not having fun anymore because you're too drunk."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

On Clearwater Beach, a Tampa family's loss gives spring breakers pause 03/15/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 2:28pm]
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