It’s Monday, the first full day of a weeklong vacation at Myrtle Beach, and the ocean is sparkling and inviting. Children laugh as they bob in the waves. Moms and dads lounge under big umbrellas with reading material in hand. Women and girls alike throw modesty to the wind and soak as much sun as possible into every pore the law will allow to be exposed.
The sky is blue, the winds are warm. The ocean beach is a fun place to be.
Virtually unnoticed is a small item in the local newspaper about a 15-year-old boy from North Carolina who disappeared over the weekend in the ocean waters along the Myrtle Beach shoreline. His body is later found about three miles away. Cause of death is drowning.
The days roll by too quickly. It’s Thursday, and early predictions of rain and thunderstorms by now seem overstated. Skies are overcast but dry, and the beach is once again bustling.
From a tenth floor balcony overlooking the beach and the massive sea, it’s impressive to observe a perfect outline of a soccer field drawn in the sand by some vacationing youngsters, and a game of beach soccer – which appears to be a combination of soccer, basketball and tag – is underway.
The winds are up, and children are trying to ride the big waves on boogie boards. Others are drifting lazily on a variety of colorful floats. Hundreds of umbrellas are again sprouting out of the sand along the shoreline. Dogs are being walked. Kites are being flown.
A small airplane makes its constant trek back and forth, pulling its advertising banner that alternately touts “Pirates Voyage,” “Ripley’s Aquarium,” “Discover Dolphins,” “Broadway at the Beach,” “Barefoot Landing” and more.
Suddenly, there are screams and a commotion on the beach. A large crowd gathers in one area of the shore, looking out toward the ocean. It turns out that two young brothers were swimming in deep water and both became distressed. A lifeguard was alerted, and he rushed into the water.
The lifeguard, barely more than a teen himself, managed to save the younger brother and hand him off to a nearby swimmer. But when he turned around, he saw the other brother go under. He dived down to find him, but couldn’t. He is distraught when he returns to shore and informs the family that he can’t find their son and brother.
One witness later tells a local news outlet, “I heard curdling, curdling screams, and the one lifeguard came up, and he said, ‘I got the one little boy; I could not get the other little boy.’ He’s devastated.”
Within a few minutes, emergency vehicles and uniformed officers descend on the beach. Small Sea-Doos have been dispersed and slowly traverse the area where the youngster – a 14-year-old boy from Georgia, it is later learned – was last seen.
Everyone else is out of the water now, resulting in hundreds of people lining the shores and staring quietly into the murky, choppy waters of the Atlantic. Word has spread quickly, and hundreds more line the railings of hotel balconies and rooftops watching it all unfold below them. Small children ask their parents, “What’s going on?” and mom and dad do their best to explain it.
Already, too much time has gone by to hope for a happy ending. The boy’s life is surely lost. When it comes to someone disappearing under the water, it’s just a matter of minutes before rescue efforts become search missions instead.
Finally, after no success by emergency responders in locating the youngster, calls go out along the beach for volunteers. A couple of hundred civilians in their swim trunks and bathing suits are asked to join hands and form 4 or 5 lines stretching from the shore to about 50 feet into the deepening water, up and down the shoreline.
The human chains slowly wade into the murky waters as the skies grow darker. Then, the lines – composed of maybe 30 or 40 people each – begin a slow, haunting march forward, a human dragnet exploring the obscure depths beneath the water’s surface with their legs and feet in the hope of finding the teen’s body, with each person secretly hoping not to be the one to find him.
With no luck, they come out of the water and move a few hundred feet further down the beach, following the direction of the tide. They join hands again, and once more, 4 or 5 lines of volunteers walk slowly into the water and begin their ponderous, ominous march parallel to the shore. Again, no luck.
Now, a coast guard helicopter is flying over the waters. The Sea-Doos continue their rounds with their occupants peering over the side into water that is too dark to see anything that is not at the surface.
Through it all, the small airplane with its advertising banner never ceases its regular flights up and down the shoreline. Business is business. The shows must go on. There are pirates and sea lions to be seen, legend impersonators to be watched, food, fun, boardwalks and tourist shops to be enjoyed.
After five or six hours, the threat of lightning suspends the search. For a while, the beach is deserted. But within a couple of hours, and after a brief storm has passed, children are again at play on the beach, some swimmers are again enjoying the ocean waves, and after darkness falls, the usual shouts of joy and peals of laughter are heard, a spattering of fireworks are set off, and everything returns to the relaxed and happy atmosphere of the hours before the tragedy.
Except for one family. They spend a sleepless night with the image of their young son and brother floating somewhere in the black waters, now shrouded by midnight darkness.
Friday morning breaks, and some rescue units are resuming their search. But by now – like the other young victim earlier in the week – no one knows how far the tides have carried the object of their search. The beach is again crowded as vacationers enjoy their long-planned, hard-earned and well-deserved breaks from their daily routines.
Friday, then Saturday, then Sunday come and go without the teen’s body being found. The search goes on, but the sea has claimed its victim. It is satisfied for now. But amid sounds of laughter and joy, it waits patiently and seductively for its next.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.
Gary Abernathy is publisher of The Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio, a Civitas Media newspaper.