As hundreds of vacationers basked nearby on a crowded Ocean City beach, a Morgan State University student from Lanham apparently drowned over the weekend after he was swept away by a rip current that came without warning, authorities said yesterday.
Lij-Paul Headley, 19, was in the water off the beach between 31st and 32nd streets when he, his brother and cousin became caught in the rapidly moving current about 2:40 p.m. Sunday, according to the Ocean City Beach Patrol. The beach was attended by lifeguards, and the three young men were in relatively shallow water, less than 75 yards from the shore, said the beach patrol captain, Butch Arbin.
None of the three men knew how to swim, Arbin said, and they apparently panicked when the swiftly moving current began pulling them into deeper water.
A lifeguard was able to pull Headley's brother and cousin to safety, but lost sight of the Morgan State student, Arbin said.
"Once those two guys were safe, the lifeguard continued on out" to look for Headley, Arbin said, "actually diving down to the bottom, spreading out his hand and feeling around on the ocean floor."
About 15 lifeguards joined in the search for an hour and a half, assisted by the Maryland State Police and Coast Guard helicopters. After an all-night search by the Coast Guard, efforts to find Headley were called off at 10 a.m. yesterday, officials said.
Headley was a rising sophomore and political science major "with very good grades" at Morgan State, said university spokesman Clinton Coleman.
"It's hard to put into words how we feel," Ocean City Mayor Richard Meehan said yesterday. "It's a tragic accident, and the first thing we think of is not only the victim, but the victim's family and what they're going through, having to deal with a loss such as this."
It was the first drowning of the summer in Ocean City, officials said. In September, a Columbia man and his 15-year-old daughter died when the father tried to rescue her from a rip current.
There was also one rip current-related drowning last summer, said beach patrol Lt. Michael Stone. He said Ocean City's nearly 150 lifeguards perform thousands of rescues every year related to rip currents.
Meehan said visitors to the shore are safe at his town's lifeguard-protected beaches, but they should never underestimate the ocean's power.
"We have thousands upon thousands of people in the water every day who are safe," he said, "and we certainly encourage people to enjoy the sand and the beach, but you just have to be really careful and respect the water."
Weather conditions Sunday in Ocean City showed "low risk of rip current," according to meteorologist Bill Sammler of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "But that doesn't necessarily mean they won't occur," he said.
Rip currents are common in the Ocean City area when weather conditions or topographical features - such as piers and jetties - create indentations in the sand bar. Water rushing out from the shore gathers in these narrow sand breaks and can form a strong undertow.
Authorities advise swimmers not to fight a rip tide, but to calmly swim away from it, parallel to the shore, until they have escaped the pull of the current.
"If you try to swim in, especially in a strong rip current, it will prevent you from getting back to shore," Sammler said. "You'll waste a tremendous amount of energy trying to buck that current, and that's how many people drown."
More than 100 people drown on U.S. beaches every year because of rip currents, according to an estimate by the United States Lifesaving Association. Rip currents can occur on any beach with breaking waves and account for more than 80 percent of rescues performed by lifeguards.
It was hot and sunny in Ocean City on Sunday, and the beach just north of the boardwalk was crowded with vacationers, said Brandon Jones, who works at the Thunderbird Beach Motel, near the area where Headley apparently drowned.
About 2:40 p.m., authorities received a call that three young men were in distress 50 to 75 yards from the beach, Arbin said.
"A witness said two of them were waving their arms, and one was struggling to keep his head above the water," according to Pfc. Barry Neeb of the Ocean City Police Department.
The beach patrol was able to rescue two of the men who were closer to the shore. "A third male was further out," Neeb said. "The witness said he saw him go under and resurface again a few times, and then go under for a final time."
"He has been missing since then."
A Coast Guard boat patrolling a nearby powerboat race was immediately diverted to the scene. A state police helicopter scanned the water with infrared technology that can detect body temperature, Arbin said, but was unable to find Headley.
Arbin said Headley's mother, who was among the family group vacationing at the shore, pleaded with him to continue looking for her son, even after several hours had passed.
"She said, 'Please don't stop searching because that means there is no hope,' Arbin said. "And I had to say, 'It's been two hours, it's been three hours, and at that point you really don't have any hope to find your son alive.'"
After an unsuccessful overnight search by helicopter, the Coast Guard suspended the rescue effort, said Petty Officer Christopher Evanson, a firstname.lastname@example.org