Friday, February 23, 2018
Public safety

Woman dies after riptide drags family offshore in Pass-a-Grille

PASS-A-GRILLE

With the sun finally breaking through several days of gloom, Mary Rudolph watched four members of her family splash into the sparkling blue waters.

Their joy turned to terror as a violent rip current sucked them out to sea.

Rudolph, 45, jumped in after them. Moments later, she was caught in it, too.

They yelled for help.

• • •

Alison Howard, 15, and her father, William, were sitting at a bench near their vacation condo along Gulf Way and 20th Avenue when they heard the screams.

It was faint. For a second, Howard thought it came from kids playing along the beach.

But one word broke through: help.

"You hear that?" she asked her dad.

When they reached the water, boogie boards in tow, they spotted Rudolph and her family more than 200 yards offshore. They were spread over at least 1,000 feet and were being dragged past the buoys.

Alison, who was certified as a lifeguard in her native Ohio last year, dove after them.

She swam to the first person she saw: Rudolph's 14-year-old niece.

Alison grabbed her, told her to hold on to the board, and brought her to shore.

Alison dove in again. She was kicking toward Rudolph when fatigue set in.

"I gotta keep kicking. I gotta keep swimming. I gotta get her," she told herself.

Rudolph held onto Alison's board, and together, they kicked to shore.

Alison's father also went in. He reached one man and asked him to kick. The man couldn't.

"Dude, you ain't giving up on me," Howard told him. Together, they made it out.

Two other bystanders, Scott Taylor of St. Petersburg and Keith Arbuckle of Melbourne also helped with the rescue.

They pulled the last family member — Rudolph's sister — from the water. The woman was unconscious.

Paramedics performed CPR and put her in an ambulance. Rudolph said her sister wasn't breathing.

In all, five family members — some who were visiting from Alabama — were treated at local hospitals. Their conditions were not available Wednesday night.

"I tried to get to them. I couldn't," Rudolph, who lives in St. Petersburg, said through tears. "The water kept taking me under. I was just so tired."

Rudolph found Alison on the beach and hugged and thanked her before heading to a hospital to check on her family.

Reached on her cell phone late Wednesday night, Rudolph said her sister had died.

Her name was Kimela Walker, 41, of Troy, Ala.

• • •

After days of rain and wind from Tropical Storm Debby, Wednesday was sunny and calm. All danger seemed to have passed.

But the gulf churned as all the water that had been pushed to shore by Debby shifted back to sea. Rip currents formed.

"What an absolute nightmare," Taylor said. "Finally the storm secedes and then something like this happens."

On Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service issued a beach hazard advisory for high rip currents in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, warning beachgoers of dangerous swimming conditions. Pass-a-Grille has no lifeguards.

Despite the advisory, people across the Pinellas beaches went in the water anyway, either unaware of the warnings or choosing to ignore them.

Just minutes before Rudolph's family was swept away, two other men were sucked into rough waters a couple of miles north. A bystander witnessed the men struggling and called authorities.

The men were lucky: They made it out of the water unharmed.

Staff photographer Dirk Shadd and staff writer Michael Finch II contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727)893-8713, or [email protected]

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