3 Alabama tourists die after getting caught in rip current during nighttime swim at Panama City Beach

A nighttime beach swim took a tragic turn for three men visiting northwest Florida from Alabama this weekend, after they were caught in a rip current and later died, according to the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.

The men, all in their 20s, were swimming off the coast of Panama City Beach on Friday when the sheriff’s office received a report of three distressed swimmers shortly after 8 p.m., according to Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford.

At least one of the swimmers was pulled from the Gulf of Mexico after the initial call, the sheriff’s office said on Facebook. That man received medical care while the search continued for the two other swimmers in the area of Watercress Condominiums, near where the victims were reported to be in distress.

The sheriff’s office’s air unit, Bay County Emergency Services, the US Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission worked to locate the swimmers, according to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff said other visitors to the area also helped search for the men.

All three swimmers were eventually found and transported to hospitals, where they were pronounced dead.

“It is with profound sadness that we announce all three young men that entered the water… and became distressed have passed away,” Ford said in a statement on Facebook.

On Saturday, the sheriff referred to the deaths as “such a tragedy” and asked for prayers for the victims’ relatives.

“Many of our rescue swimmers with the Sheriff’s Office, Bay County Emergency Services and Panama City Beach went into the dark and dangerous waters for over two hours to attempt to rescue and search for the young men,” Ford said in a statement.

The sheriff identified the victims from Birmingham, Alabama, as Harold Denzel Hunter, 25, and Jemonda Ray and Marius Richardson, both 24.

They had arrived Friday evening with a group of friends in Panama City Beach, a popular tourist destination that receives around 4.5 million visitors annually.

“They checked into their rental and rushed out to get into the water,” Ford said.

Rip currents contributed to the deaths of two others visiting Florida beaches last week. On Thursday, a Pennsylvania couple visiting the beach off South Florida’s Hutchinson Island drowned after a rip current swept them away, according to the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

The victims – Brian Warter, 51, and Erica Wishard, 48 – were part of a family of eight vacationing in Florida when the deadly accident occurred, the sheriff’s office told CNN affiliate WPEC.

What to know about rip current safety

Rip currents are strong and narrow flows of water, usually less than 80 feet wide, that flow toward the ocean away from the shoreline at an acute or perpendicular angle, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric and Administration.

The powerful currents can move faster than an Olympic swimmer at speeds of up to 8 feet per second, according to NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Rip currents’ strength and movement pose safety threats to swimmers who can quickly be caught up in them and swept away. They kill around 100 people in the United States annually, according to the ocean service.

Swimming parallel to the shore instead of toward it when encountering a rip current is the best way to escape it, experts say.

Swimmers faced with a rip current should avoid panicking, keep breathing, try keeping their heads above water and avoid getting exhausted trying to fight against the rip current’s force.

CNN’s Mallika Kallingal contributed to this report.

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