The waters off the Apollo Beach Nature Preserve don’t look dangerous. The beach tapers gently at first, an inviting place to wade if you don’t notice the steep drop-off and the rapid current just a few feet away.
“You cannot swim against something like that,” said Mark Luther, an associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science.
A father, his 3-year-old son and a Good Samaritan who tried to save them all drowned Friday evening in a tidal current flowing off the beach. At the point the three became caught up in the water, the current was the strongest it had been all day.
Luther, who specializes in the physics of water movement, said the flow of water near Apollo Beach makes for dangerous swimming conditions.
The sandy beach area comprises about 2 acres to the north of the 63-acre preserve. To the west of the beach are the waters of Tampa Bay. To the east is a narrow channel of water that leads to TECO’s Big Bend Power Station.
When the tide rises, the waters from Tampa Bay flow east into the channel. As the tide falls, all that water goes rushing back to the bay, creating a rapid current that flows past the beach. This flow of water is called a “tidal current.”
“That’s what these unfortunate people got caught in,” Luther said.
On Friday evening, the tide in the area was unusually high, Luther said — about 3 feet, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records.
That meant the current was moving faster than usual, too — about 1.5 mph at its peak around 7:16 p.m.
In that narrow passage where the water moves more quickly, Luther estimates the current could easily have been moving twice as fast — about 3 mph. That’s enough to overwhelm even a strong, adult swimmer, Luther said.
“I certainly can’t swim that fast,” he said.
The Good Samaritan’s wife called 911 for help at around 7:30 p.m.
Locals have long known that the waters where the three swimmers drowned is dangerous, said Don Swartz, dockmaster of the Tampa Sailing Squadron at the nearby Apollo Beach Marina. But since Hillsborough County expanded public access to the area, some might assume it’s safe to go in the water, Swartz said.
People, some with their dogs, enjoy wading in the shallow waters of the beach. “No swimming” signs have been posted there for some time.
But the signs were never meant to warn about tidal currents, said Forest Turbiville, director of Hillsborough County’s Conservation and Environmental Lands Management department. The danger, he said, is from a nearby channel used by boaters and the anti-erosion rock piles along the shore.
Still, in response to the drownings, the county is taking extra steps to ensure visitors’ safety at the preserve.
The county will send staff to patrol the area for the next couple of weeks, reminding people to stay out of the water. It’s also designing more “No swimming” signs, this time warning of a steep drop, rocks and obstacles, boating traffic — and strong currents.
Even now, though, the county sees no evidence to suggest that Apollo Beach poses a unique risk of dangerous currents.
“Any channel that you have, whether it’s a recreational boating channel, or larger channel, at high and low tide — as the tide’s going out or coming back in — you can have some additional currents,” Turbiville said. “Now, whether that’s strong enough to make what happened over the weekend occur? I don’t know the answer to that.”
The county plans to find the answer by evaluating the evidence from the drownings and calculating the average tidal shift in the area. The warnings will remain in place whatever they learn.
“We’re still going to have signs up that say strong currents, even if the evidence were to cite otherwise,” Turbiville said.
Janosh Purackal, 37, of Gibsonton, and 3-year-old Daniel Purackal were the father and son who died in the tragic accident. They were quickly recovered by rescuers. The man who saw them struggling and jumped in to help was Kristoff Murray, 27. A body believed to be Murray’s was found three days later on a spoil island about a mile west of the preserve’s shoreline, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said.
The tragedy prompted an outpouring of tributes from loved ones and strangers who were touched by Murray’s selfless act.
On the Facebook page of his high school, St. Mary High School in Jamaica, a post declared that the decision by the 2010 graduate to jump in the water that day “was the epitome of faith and courage … your heroic act is recovered in heaven.”
Murray’s family created a GoFundMe Page, titled “Apollo Beach Hero: Kristoff Murray,” to help pay for funeral expenses and “to help with the satisfactory growth of his kids. Dejectedly, he leaves behind a lovely wife, an oh so precious daughter and a shy, serene son.”
The online fundraising page was created Tuesday and had collected $6,400 from 90 donors by midday Wednesday.
Janosh Purackal leaves behind a wife and infant child.
Social media posts paint a picture of a kind, quiet man who loved nothing more than to spend time with his son. Born in Changanacherry, India, Purackal worked as a software developer for phosphate company Mosaic. His wife works as a nurse at her own private practice, specializing in family health.
In an online tributes page, friends described the father as “very kind, soft-spoken and always willing to help.”
A local nonprofit organization, Operation Lotus, has begun collecting donations via Facebook for Purackal’s family.
Funeral services for the father and son occurred on Thursday at St. Joseph Syro Malabar Catholic Church in Seffner, where Janosh taught catechism.
Getting out of a “tidal current”
An inland tidal current is different from the rip currents swimmers encounter on Gulf beaches, experts say, but tips for surviving them are similar.
Swim perpendicular to the current and float on your back to conserve energy until help arrives.
Don’t fight it; that increases your risk of drowning. Try to stay calm.
Call 911 if you see someone in trouble, then try to throw the person a flotation device.