PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- A mother called to her 10-year-old son to get out of the roiling Gulf of Mexico surf where he had been playing with a body board. He yelled back, "I can't!"
Christopher Chapman, 44, a father of two from Edina, Minn., waded in with others trying to rescue the boy a year ago Wednesday. The boy was saved but Chapman died, the first of 11 people to drown along a 30-mile stretch of Santa Rosa Island last year.
Occasional drownings are an unfortunate fact of life on Florida's beaches, but Santa Rosa Island's death toll last year makes the area stand out.
"It's the worst place in the nation for drowning," said David Shotwell Sr., of Ocean Grove, N.J., national secretary of the United States Lifesaving Association.
The beach also has the distinction of being the site where a bull shark bit off an 8-year-old boy's arm last July. Jessie Arbogast was critically injured, but surgeons reattached the arm, pulled from the shark's gullet after Jessie's uncle dragged the fish ashore.
The spike in drownings on the island -- where six people drowned in 2000, and only three during the previous three years -- has drawn the attention of local officials. They are hoping to keep swimmers safe by hiring more lifeguards and posting signs that warn of dangerous currents.
Statewide drowning numbers are not yet available for 2001, but statistics from earlier years show how Santa Rosa's 11 deaths stand out. Florida averages 20 surf beach drownings annually, according to the weather service. From 1996 through 2000, an average of 86 such drownings occurred across the country, the lifesaving association says.
The Santa Rosa drownings have gotten relatively little attention outside the area. The gruesome shark attack overshadowed the dangerous killer responsible for most, if not all, of the drownings: rip currents that pull swimmers out to sea.
Also known as a riptide, a rip current occurs when water from waves is trapped between a sandbar and the beach. The water seeks the path of least resistance, turning any break in the sandbar into a fast-flowing underwater river.
"It's almost like a toilet flushing," said Chris Brewster, of the lifesaving association.
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