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Panhandle drowning toll grows; police add patrols

Police added extra beach patrols Thursday and urged people to stay out of the water the day after two people drowned in rough seas churned by the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill.

"We brought in an extra shift of people. We scrounged up every four-wheel drive we could to put them in," said Panama City Beach police Maj. David Humphreys.

Despite Wednesday's deaths and the drownings of nine others across the Panhandle last month, many people ignored red flags and warnings from officers.

"We get a lot of people that call our dispatch center that actually complain that we're asking them to get out of the water," Humphreys said. "We get call after call from people who say, "I spent my money and came down here; you can't keep me out of the water.' What can you do about people like that?"

The latest victims brought this year's toll from accidental drownings to at least 17 along a 100-mile stretch of coast from Pensacola to Panama City Beach.

One of Wednesday's victims was William E. Jones, 54, of Jonesboro, Ga., who went into the gulf to try to save two teenage girls caught in a rip current. One of the girls also drowned.

"Unfortunately, the man's bravery cost him his life," Humphreys said.

At least five other rescued swimmers were taken to hospitals.

Drownings are an annual problem in the Panhandle, where strong rip currents can develop suddenly.

Officials across the region say putting more lifeguards on beaches would cost possibly millions of dollars, money they don't have. Instead, they have relied on warning flags as well as signs, safety brochures and beach patrols.

The National Center of Injury Prevention and Control, a unit of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, plans to investigate drowning deaths in Panhandle counties.