(NEW YORK) — A mother has made it her mission to ensure her family’s tragedy will not be repeated after her husband died trying to save their two daughters from drowning.
Ali and Austin Joy of Ashland, Virginia, were on vacation with their three children on Father’s Day weekend in June 2018. Ali Joy said she and Austin surprised Charlie, who was 9 at the time, and 7-year-old twins Mary and Ryland, with a trip to Atlantic Beach, North Carolina.
“He loved the beach. He grew up in Maine,” Joy told Good Morning America of her husband. “I called him a ‘silver fox.’ He looked like a movie star — elegant, humorous. He was very charming.”
She went on, “He was fun. Loved the kids, played with the kids. He did the homework because that wasn’t my strength. He loved to cook, not just cook but present the plate in a special way. He was kind. If he cared about you, then you had the world on your side.”
“We just ran because that’s what you do as a parent”
Joy said she and her family left June 14 for their trip. They had a picnic, took a ferry ride and decided to go to the beach around 6 p.m. one day after an early dinner.
Although it was after lifeguard hours, Joy said there were many beachgoers. The girls ran toward the ocean while Joy, Austin and their son Charlie stayed behind.
“[Austin] looked and said, ‘The girls are too far out,"” Joy recalled. “When we looked out, it looked like they had engines on them. We just ran because that’s what you do as a parent.”
Joy said she and Austin picked a spot on the beach where the water appeared to be shallow and calm, though the girls, Mary and Ryland, ended up in a rip current — a strong, narrow channel flowing away from the shore.
“A rip current will pull you out in deeper water but not fully under,” said Tom Gill, chief of the Virginia Beach Lifesaving Service and vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA). “The cause [of rip currents] in most places are sandbars that break down in certain areas. The water that comes across wants to go out and it finds the path of least resistance and that’s the sandbar, [which is] where that funnel takes place.”
Joy and Austin swam after the girls. The rip current pulled all four of them 200 yards out and no one was able to touch ground.
“There was screaming and panicking, and I’m looking for Austin and he’s nowhere to be found,” Joy said. “[The girls] were slick and slippery. I was trying to raise my hand but they were on top of me. The next thing I can remember is someone screaming, ‘Float on your back’ and then came out with a surfboard.”
Joy said there were four Marines on the beach who yelled, “float.” When a Marine came to her family’s rescue, Austin was found unconscious.
Joy was reunited with her son, who stayed behind looking for help. One Marine performed CPR and worked on Austin until a rescue crew arrived.
A stranger drove Joy and her children to the local hospital where Austin was admitted. There, doctors told Joy that he had been unconscious for 30 minutes and they were unable to revive him.
“I fell to the ground,” Joy said. “When news like that hits you, you want to be swallowed by the earth.”
Joy said she asked for a chaplain and went to tell her children that their father had died.
“I said, ‘This happened because of the ocean,"” Joy recalled. “I don’t know how I’ve been able to do this but the girls never felt responsible or guilty.”
Float Don’t Fight
In 2018, the year Austin died, there were 33 unguarded, rip current drowning deaths in the U.S. That same year, there were two guarded rip current deaths and 47,008 rip current rescues, according to the USLA.
“What people need to know is the panic,” Joy said, adding that her main goal is to educate others. “Rescuers die because the struggle can result in drowning and the panic can result in a heart attack.”
Joy is now the founder and executive director of Float Don’t Fight — a campaign dedicated to raising awareness on how to survive a rip current.
Through her initiative, Joy’s message is to:
1. Bring a float to the beach
2. Grab a float before you run in
3. Be a float if you don’t have one.
“Drowning is silent. I had to reverse-engineer and figure out what happened to me,” Joy said, adding that she searched the internet to learn what occurred on the beach the day Austin died. “I learned you’re using all your air to stay afloat so it’s hard to calmly call out, raise your hand for help. I didn’t have that luxury.”
Joy said she works with rescue crews and community members to spread her safety message. There’s Float Don’t Fight signage every 10 yards where the tragedy happened and Joy said she has plans to go global. The next step, she said, is to hopefully offer floats to beachgoers.
Joy said she’s returning to Atlantic Beach this Memorial Day to meet with officials about expanding her initiative.
Gill, who works with public education, lifeguard training and helps provides safer beaches around the country through the USLA, also went to college with Joy and Austin. Gill began collaborating with Joy once he learned about Float Don’t Fight.
“If you can float, then you can survive,” Gill told GMA. “That’s why her message resonates.”
Preventing more tragedies
Gill said he often sees untrained rescuers become victims after they go into the water to help someone, though it’s parental instinct wanting to save your child.
The best way to prevent more tragedies, he said, is education.
Here are best practices to stay out of rip currents or how to survive one, according to Gill:
Swim on a beach with lifeguards.
When planning a vacation, don’t just search for a nice hotel and restaurants, Gill said. Research if the beaches have lifeguards, and if you’re going in the water, make sure they’re on duty.
If you find yourself in a rip current, don’t panic.
If you can float, you can stay on top of the water. Relax, calm down, then yell and scream for help.
Lean on lifeguards.
If someone needs help out in the ocean, a lifeguard is the answer. Get a floatation device — a boogie board, raft or surfboard — to the person in trouble without putting yourself in danger too. Gill said untrained rescuers who do not have floatation devices will only add to the problem.
Look to resources in addition to Float Don’t Fight. Weather.gov offers a brand new rip current modeling forecast. People can search rip currents and make better decisions about going to the beach and or going into the water.
For rip current stats, visit the USLA.org public education page.
What to say kids on water safety
Gill shared more tips for talking with children.
“Keep your toes in the sand until there’s lifeguard in the stand.”
“When in doubt don’t go out.” If the water looks rough, teach them to stay behind.
Look for red flags and check in with the lifeguard to ask what the colors mean.
“Teach them that we want to prevent the rescue.”
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