EMERALD ISLE — At 3 p.m. Sunday in the back courtyard of The Trading Post restaurant, John Merical of Wake Forest closed his eyes during a moment of silence and tightly gripped the hand of the person standing next to him.
John Merical was wearing a yellow T-shirt, emblazoned with the words “DON’T FIGHT THE RIP, FLOAT WITH IT.”
Just a few minutes earlier, John Merical had been sitting at a table with his wife, Suzi, selling the T-shirts to raise money to spread the word about how others can avoid the fate of their 17-year-old daughter, Paige, who lost her life April 26 when the family removed her from life support one week after she and a friend, 18-year-old Ian Lewis, were caught in a rip current off Emerald Isle.
“I keep thinking it’s a nightmare and I’m going to wake up,” John Merical said in an interview a little earlier in the afternoon, before the event, which Emerald Isle resident Susie Van Guilder organized.
The idea was to honor Emerald Isle surfers and first responders who have rescued many struggling swimmers this year and in years past. But it also included that poignant moment of silence for close friends and Wake Forest High School students Paige and Mr. Lewis, whose body was found April 22, and two others who died after being caught in rip currents off Emerald Isle this year.
The other two victims were Camp Lejeune-based Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Hinds, 28, of Arizona, who died May 4, and Robert Patterson Jr., 48, of Jacksonville. He died May 21 after being pulled from the water by surfers May 19.
When Ms. Van Guilder stopped the live music to start the moment of silence, she said it was to honor “those who couldn’t be here because they lost their lives on our shores this spring.”
But John and Suzi Merical weren’t there just for the moment of silence. They came back to Emerald Isle this weekend to continue to make a difference for Paige, who was an organ donor and saved five lives, including a family friend.
They’ve given countless interviews in the more than two months since Paige died, all to spread the word that the old advice about how to escape a rip current – swim parallel to the beach to get out of it – is no longer the best advice. Instead, the message they’re spreading is that folks should enter the ocean with some sort of flotation device and if caught in a rip just let it carry them out until it ceases, then return to shore.
If you don’t have a flotation device, the same advice applies, Mr. Merical said, don’t struggle.
“So many people die because they try to fight the rip,” he said. “They just get exhausted.”
“Even the fastest swimmer can’t outswim a rip current,” his wife added. “Michael Phelps (Olympic record-holder) only swam about 5 miles per hour. A rip current goes at least 5.5. You can’t outswim it.”
Doing it to honor Paige
“It’s really all about education,” John Merical said. “…If you know what it does, and you know what to do, you can survive. Don’t fight. Float.”
All of these interviews, Mr. Merical said, have been painful, and so was coming back to Emerald Isle to see the spot where Paige went under the water and to talk to those who saw it happen.
“We’re both retired. This is all we have to do. We feel like we’re honoring Paige,” he said. “We feel like every time we do an interview we’re potentially saving another life.”
In the process, Suzi Merical said, they feel like they’ve gained a new family.
“Everyone has been so kind,” she said. “Everyone we’ve talked to here, almost, has heard Paige’s story. They’ve all been wonderful. We’ve gotten so much support from everyone.”
The Mericals plan to visit North Carolina beaches with their message all summer. They plan to head to Florida to spread it, as well. They’re already given talks and held fundraisers in the Triangle area, hoping to reach parents and kids they know visit Emerald Isle and other North Carolina beaches every summer.
They’re also promoting their late daughter’s support for organ donation.
“What happened to Paige was so wrong,” Suzi said. “We’re trying to put a little bit of ‘right’ back in the world.”
They’re also trying to get Emerald Isle and some other beach towns to do more to protect the lives of those who swim in the ocean off their strands.
Many, like Emerald Isle, John Merical said, need more lifeguards and they need them earlier in the year, before tourism season kicks into high gear. Emerald Isle’s lifeguards start in mid-May and work through Labor Day.
John Merical admits he was angry at first and believes the ocean was too rough for swimming April 19, when Paige and Mr. Lewis died. The ocean should have been closed, he said.
But teens don’t think that way, he said. They drive down for a day at the beach and head straight to the water. They don’t necessarily know the town flies warning flags, but not until mid-May.
He also believes through the efforts he and his wife are making, and through the efforts of folks like Ms. Van Guilder, Emerald Isle officials are trying to do more.
“We hope it’s a learning experience,” John Merical said. “We’ve seen that they are doing some new things, and that’s great.”
The couple said they’d like to spare others the pain they’ve faced.
“It’s been nine weeks now, but sometimes it seems like it’s been nine hours,” he said of the day they received the phone call about Paige being pulled from the ocean and transported to the hospital after being underwater for about 14 minutes.
“Take everything bad that’s ever happened to you and put them all together, and this is just so much worse,” he noted. “…We’re thankful for the person who pulled her from the water and we’re thankful for those who did CPR.”
Those people, Suzi Merical said, are responsible for Paige making it to VidantHealth in Greenville alive, and for giving the couple a week to be with her.
“I got (to) help suction out (her lungs),” John Merical said. “That time means a lot to us.”
It also made organ donation possible. The care at the hospital, the Mericals said, was extraordinary, keeping the athletic girl’s organs healthy.
“I don’ think the nurses ever sat down,” Suzi Merical said. “They were wonderful.”
John Merical said the other reason for the trip was to be there for the surfers at the event Ms. Van Guilder organized.
“They’re the heroes,” who so often go unnoticed, he said of the surfers. “If it wasn’t for them, there would be many more deaths every year.”
That’s precisely why Ms. Van Guilder set up the event, which, while somber during the moment of silence, was joyful for the rest of the two-plus hours. Kids threw Frisbees, folks played corn hole, hula-hoops were abundant, Old Smoke and Now and Then played music and The Trading Post served free food for all who wanted it.
Ms. Van Guilder, an elementary school teacher, said she’d received more than $6,000 in cash and gift cards to give to town personnel and surfers as tokens of appreciation.
“I never thought it would get so big when I started this a few weeks ago,” she said, looking at the big crowd. “The generosity of this town has been overwhelming.”
She first thanked the donors and the crowd. Then she thanked the Emerald Isle Fire Department, which runs the lifeguard program, the police department, which patrols the strand, and the EMS department, which responds to rescue calls. All were represented at the event
Then came the surfers.
“Thank you for your bravery and courage,” she said.
One surfer honored Sunday, she said, doesn’t have a phone, doesn’t participate in social media and almost couldn’t be found.
But their modesty, she said, “is all the more reason to thank them.”
Each surfer she could round up and who attended got gift certificates, a beverage container and an aerial photo of Emerald Isle, signed in thanks by many of those who attended.
“It’s been a journey for me, making this event happen,” Ms. Van Guilder said. “The gifts to my heart have been many. The Mericals are such an inspiration.
“Their beautiful daughter passing, along with the lives of three others, is so tragic. I want to help educate others on how to survive a rip current, or better, to not go in when there’s any doubt.”
“Thank you for putting your lives on the line,” she said to the surfers.”
Surfers who were recognized included Ben Linton, Dylan Snyder, Rick Scott, Alexander Lewis, Eric Zaleski, Rob Whaley, Dylan Alexander, Luke Brooks, Peyton Weist, Mike Conner, Grant Meadows, Cannon Tootle, Cooper Hanford and Jacob Carroll.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.