There were no rip currents in the section of Florida coastline where former NFL quarterback Ryan Mallett drowned Tuesday afternoon, according to a statement from Destin Beach Safety, which oversees lifeguarding operations in the area.
And the conditions in the water at the time Mallett was rescued were not especially hazardous or dangerous.
The new details underscore the tragic and shocking nature of Mallett’s death, which prompted widespread mourning and tributes across the broader football community late Tuesday and into Wednesday morning. The former Arkansas quarterback, who spent six NFL seasons with three different teams, had been set to begin his second season as a high school football coach in Arkansas this fall. He was 35 years old.
“We lost a great man. Thank you for everything Ryan,” retired quarterback Tom Brady, a former teammate of Mallett’s with the New England Patriots, wrote in an Instagram story. “Praying for the Mallett family and all their loved ones.”
New details released about the incident
Destin Beach Safety said in its statement that it arrived to the scene after a beach attendant called 911 at around 2:12 p.m. on Tuesday, reporting that six individuals were struggling to make it back to the shore. When the rescue service arrived, lifeguards were told one of the individuals ― later confirmed to be Mallett ― had gone underwater and failed to resurface. Three lifeguards ultimately assisted the group, including Mallett, who was not breathing when he was brought to shore, authorities said.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office said its investigators are continuing to gather information about the incident but believe Mallett was attempting to swim to a second sandbar about 150 feet offshore. They had yet to release a formal incident report as of Wednesday afternoon.
“Despite widespread media misinformation, yellow beach safety flags were flying at the time and there were no indications of any ‘riptides,'” the sheriff’s office said in a post on Facebook, alongside brief body cam footage.
The flags it referenced are part of a broader safety system that is in place in the area, to warn visitors about how hazardous the conditions are in the water on any given day.
The yellow flag indicates there was moderate surf and/or currents in the area Tuesday, which means life-threatening conditions were possible but not likely. Destin had issued red or double red flag warnings in 12 of the preceding 13 days. Under double red flag warnings, it is illegal to enter the Gulf of Mexico.
Data on swimming incidents in the area
Mallett’s death occurred in a stretch of beach off Gulf Shore Drive in Destin, Florida ― a strip of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico populated by resorts, hotels, condos and the occasional restaurant.
According to data obtained by USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday, that particular stretch of beach has not been an abnormally troublesome spot − though it has been the site of dozens of swimming incidents in recent years.
Since May 2020, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has responded to at least 58 calls for service regarding swimmers in distress in the three-mile stretch of beach from Destin East Jetty to the western edge of Henderson Beach State Park. Six of the calls, including the one regarding Mallett, ultimately involved drowning deaths.
According to data maintained by the National Weather Service, there have been more than 1,000 surf zone fatalities since 2010, including 60 so far this year, as of Sunday. Of those 60 deaths, which do not include Mallett’s, 17 have occurred along the Gulf of Mexico and all but two involved rip currents.
“Many times people don’t think about it, and they’re caught off guard by the risk,” Greg Dusek, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ocean service unit, told The Associated Press. “I guess that’s natural human mentality. You get to the beach, you just want to have a good time with your family. You’re not necessarily thinking about what can go wrong.”
Double-digit deaths along Gulf of Mexico
The past month has been an especially tragic time, both in Destin beaches and across the Florida panhandle.
In a 12-day span from June 14 through Sunday, Destin Beach Safety said it had rescued 48 people and rendered some form of first aid on 55 occasions. The rescue service’s director, Joe D’Agostino, said last week that lifeguards had encountered many people who disobeyed their warnings while effectively saying “I paid a whole bunch of money, I’m getting in the water no matter what.”
“I’d like to remind everybody out there, locals and visitors: We’re not the fun police,” D’Agostino told The Destin Log, which is part of the USA TODAY Network. “We don’t want to ruin your vacation. We just want to see you go home alive.”
In Bay County, just east of Destin, authorities have been dealing with similar issues. Seven tourists died in the county in a 10-day span earlier this month, and six occurred in areas that were under double red flag warnings at the time.
“I’m beyond frustrated at the situation that we have with tragic and unnecessary deaths in the Gulf,” the county’s sheriff, Tommy Ford, wrote in part of a passionate plea posted on Facebook on Sunday.
“I’m so proud of the men and women at the sheriffs office and partner agencies that are giving their absolute best to save lives. Please be responsible and don’t put your life or theirs in danger.”
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.