CLEARWATER — A white sun beat down on Clearwater Beach shortly before 11 a.m. Thursday. After days of wind and rain brought by Tropical Storm Debby, the gulf's surface was smooth as a steel drum.
Mike Felletter, on vacation from New Jersey, was swimming with his son in shallow water at the north end of the beach when he heard screams.
"I thought they were kidding at first," he said. "Then I saw the woman floating."
The 51-year-old Felletter likes the water and considers himself a decent swimmer. He tore out toward two people crying for help near a woman bobbing on her back about 35 feet from shore.
He said her face was submerged when he reached her. Lifting her head, he saw her eyes were closed. Foamy saltwater streamed from her mouth. They were in about 6 feet of water.
The current sucked him outward, Felletter said, like a fast river. He grabbed the middle-aged woman with both arms and scissor-kicked. He moved diagonally toward the shore, aware that in rip currents, you are supposed to swim parallel to the beach until free of the current. Another man came to help him as he approached the beach.
Clearwater Beach lifeguard Donovan Burns was on Tower 5, running his gaze back and forth across the swimmers spread before him. When he heard the screams and saw the disturbance, he hit the water.
First he reached the man and woman who were still conscious, and buoyed them up with an orange flotation device. Then he helped pull the other woman in.
Vacationer Carol Shaffer was on the beach when the unconscious woman was brought ashore. She said the woman was "purple and limp." Bronzed beachgoers watched as five lifeguards gathered around her and began to perform CPR. Some of the tourists began to cry.
Clearwater Fire & Rescue workers arrived.
"They worked on her forever," Shaffer said.
In fact, they performed CPR for about 10 minutes, said chief lifeguard Patrick Brafford. The woman wasn't breathing. Eventually, they restored her pulse and she was taken to Morton Plant Hospital to be treated for what authorities said was a potentially life-threatening near-drowning.
Clearwater authorities did not identify the woman, citing patient privacy laws, but said she was 50 years old. The man and woman with her were family members, authorities said, and declined medical treatment.
According to lifeguard Burns, Tropical Storm Debby shifted the topography of the shore, carving out troughs and pushing up sandbars where none existed before. As a result, the ordinarily gentle slope of Clearwater Beach is now prone to the sudden, powerful currents that form near steep drop-offs in the ocean bottom.
"It's so deceiving, because you look out there and it looks so calm," Shaffer said Thursday.
Yellow flag warnings were posted at Clearwater Beach Thursday, advising swimmers to use caution. On Wednesday, seven swimmers were rescued from rip currents at Pass-a-Grille Beach, in south Pinellas County. One of them later died.
The three swimmers in distress at Clearwater Beach Thursday were not caught in a rip tide, Burns said, just a stronger-than-average current caused by the shifted sands.
Strong swimmers probably would not have had trouble in similar circumstances, he said, but those who aren't fully comfortable in the water should be careful about venturing out of standing depth.
"You just want to be aware," Burns said. "With all the rough surf, the bottom has changed, and there could be hazards up and down our coastline."
Felletter praised the speed with which lifeguards reacted. He and his family stayed at the beach for another few hours Thursday, and even continued swimming. They made sure not to venture too far out in the water.
Clearwater public safety spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said the woman was still being treated late Thursday afternoon. Her condition was not released.
Burns went back on duty after the ambulance left Clearwater Beach. It was a busy day, with lots of people to watch. He wondered what would become of the woman he had helped rescue.
"I hope she makes it," he said Thursday afternoon. "I hope she makes it."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.