Man, 49, drowns in rough surf in Fernandina Beach, police say

Son, 20, survives near-drowning; Family gathers Monday to mourn

By Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. - A day after a 49-year-old man drowned Sunday in rough surf, his loved ones gathered in a circle to pray on Fernandina Beach, not far from where his body was found.

Police said they received a call about 3:15 p.m. Sunday, regarding a father and son in distress at the beach. 

Police said the son, 20-year-old Cale Murray, was able to get out of the water, and rescue workers found him on the beach. He pointed them to the ocean and said his father, Christopher Brian Murray, was still in distress and needed to be rescued.

Rescue swimmers from Fernandina Beach Fire-Rescue, the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office and an off-duty Fernandina Beach lifeguard responded and began searching the rough waters.  A local pilot responded to the call for assistance by circling the area looking for anyone in distress.  

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Air Unit and the U.S. Coast Guard also helped search for Christopher Murray, whose body was found in the surf about 4:50 p.m. off South Fletcher Avenue near New York Avenue, about 75 yards south of where he was last seen, police said. 

Keith Pinelli, who visits frequently from New Jersey, witnessed the attempted rescue.

“The helicopters were going around. They started down there and came up this way,” Pinelli said. “I figured that's what I would have done, too, because the way this was ripping, it must have been at least 50 mph winds down here.”

Pinelli said his heart goes out to Christopher Murray's loved ones.

Cale Murray was medically cleared by firefighters at the scene.

Police said the two had been swimming during "red flag" conditions, indicating dangerous rip currents.

Fernandina Beach Fire Chief Ty Silcox, who is in charge of Ocean Rescue, said the warning flags aren't posted after the summer season, and lifeguards are not on duty in Fernandina Beach, or most area beaches, after Labor Day weekend.

“That kind of wind, I think, they should have bigger signs -- or a guard -- really a guard,” Pinelli said. “Have a flag ... and then people won't swim. Red flag, no swimming. Yellow, be careful, and green is good. It's really easy.”

The city of Fernandina Beach uses a texting program to update the current beach conditions twice a day during the summer -- at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. -- and as needed based on conditions during the off-season. To sign up for the messages, text BCHSAFE to 888777 for the conditions of Nassau County beaches.

Conditions were increased to double red flag on Monday, warning beachgoers to stay out of the water altogether after Sunday's drowning.

Silcox said Hurricane Maria in the Atlantic Ocean is creating dangerous surf on the North Florida coastline. He encouraged anyone swimming during the off-season when lifeguards aren't on duty to swim with someone, be sure there are other people around and follow local weather updates.

Those warnings didn't keep 17-year-old surfer C.J. Rogers out of the water Monday.

"The waves are pretty good. We don't really get waves like this too often," Rogers said, adding that he was saddened when he learned about Sunday's drowning, but it didn't deter him from going in the water. "We come out here all of the time. It's really, really unfortunate that happened yesterday, especially because there was a really bad rip current here."

Rogers said, as an experienced surfer and swimmer, the key to surviving in a rip current is to stay calm and float.

"If you're caught in one, don't freak out. Kind of go with it. It will dump you out, and you can swim to the side and try to come in and wave for help," Rogers said.

Rogers said he checks the weather conditions before he heads to the beach.

Silcox said the department is looking into having rip current warning flags and lifeguards year round.

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