Parents of teen who drowned off Emerald Isle in 2019 to return with ocean safety message

Paige Merical, 17, drowned after being caught in a rip current off Emerald Isle in April 2019. Her parents will return to the area this month as part of an ongoing effort to educate the public about the risk of rip current. (Contributed photo)

EMERALD ISLE — The parents of a 17-year-old Wake Forest girl who drowned with a friend after being caught in a rip current in  2019 off Emerald Isle will be at Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier Saturday, July 25 to pass out ocean safety material and talk to people about rip currents.

Suzi Merical, along with her husband, John, has devoted much of her life since last year to spread the word about floating, not fighting, to get out of rip currents. Their daughter Paige, and her 18-year-old friend, Ian Lewis, drowned April 19, 2019.

Ms. Merical said Monday she’s willing to go anywhere, talk to anyone and do anything to help others “avoid the trauma we’re still going through.”

Mike Stanley, owner of the pier, said he hadn’t heard from the Mericals, but will welcome them.

“Anything we can do to help make the public smarter, we’ll do,” he said.

The Mericals traveled the southeastern U.S. coast last summer handing out literature and talking to people, and planned to do the same all this year, but have been limited by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Their first event this year will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Sea Vista Hotel at Topsail Beach, followed by an emotional return to Emerald for the first time since last summer, when they attended an event to honor life-saving surfers and EMS personnel.

The July 25 event will be a little less than two weeks after the first drownings of the year in Emerald Isle, which occurred Sunday, when two men perished after being pulled out of the ocean off Coast Guard Road.

Although officials have not said a rip current was to blame in the deaths of James Burton, 72, of Cornelius, and John Emerline, 73, of Raleigh, others on the beach Sunday say rip currents were abundant and the ocean was rough.

Regardless, Ms. Merical said Monday the sad incident points out the need for more people to learn how to escape rip currents. The Mericals promote the use of flotation devices, but stress those caught in the currents should not fight them, but float on their backs until a rip current releases them, then make their way back to the beach.

It can happen to anyone, at any time, regardless of swimming ability or the depth of the water.

“Paige and Ian were in knee-deep water,” Ms. Merical said. “A lot of people think they were in deep water, but they weren’t. The water was cold. They were just 2 feet apart, just playing, kicking water at each other. A wave knocked them down and then…”

Since last year, when they embarked on their tour, the Mericals have heard from many people who’ve seen them on television interviews or in person. Some say the information about “don’t fight the rip” has save their lives or the lives of others with them, Ms. Merical said.

“We just heard from one man who in Destin, Florida, who had heard us,” she said. “He got caught in a rip and remembered what we’d said and floated and got back to the beach.”

Another person, in their hometown of Wake Forest, said he remembered hearing their message and talked to his grandchildren about rip current safety on way the to Emerald Isle, she added. He was reportedly caught in a rip current last year with the grandchildren, recalled the information he’d heard and floated to safety with them, Ms. Merical said.

“It feels good” to know the message is getting out to some people, she said. “We couldn’t save our daughter, but it’s good to know we’re helping to save others.”

“It’s been a little over a year since we lost our baby,” John Merical said. “Life is still so lonely without Paige. I think about her every second of every day.”

He urged all to be careful in the ocean.

“If caught (in a rip current), relax, flip and float on your back, until the rip current ends,” he said in an email. “They won’t take you down, just out. Once it stops, tread and yell for help, or if you can safely swim around it, do that. Always have a floatation device with you.”

Two other people drowned in the ocean in Emerald Isle as a result of rip currents in 2019, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Hinds, 28, of Arizona, who died May 4, 2019, and Robert Patterson Jr., 48, of Jacksonville. He died May 21, 2019, after being pulled from the water by surfers May 19, 2019.


Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.

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