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Parents to launch rip current campaign after daughter’s death

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RALEIGH — When the phone rang April 19, it was a phone call Suzi Merical had hoped would never come.

She and her husband, John, couldn’t have children of their own. So in their 40s, the couple decided to adopt, and Paige Merical became a part of their family.

She was their whole world, their “shining star,” Suzi said. The parents believed Paige was destined to be their daughter.

When she answered the phone April 19, a friend of Paige’s told her that Paige had drowned in a rip current while on a trip to Emerald Isle. She was pulled from the water and taken to a hospital.

A week later, Paige, a Wake Forest High School senior, was taken off life support. She was 17. A second Wake Forest senior, Ian Lewis, had also been swept away by the rip current, and his body was found several days later.

“I always used to tell her, I said ‘Now Paige, you can’t have an accident or have something happen to you’, I said, ‘because you know that your mom won’t be able to breathe if you’re not alive,’” Suzi said. “And that is so true. Every breath is so hard to take.”

John said he and his wife are heartbroken — but also determined. They feel they have a responsibility to prevent others from falling into rip currents and dying.

Sunday, the couple will launch their new campaign: Don’t Fight the Rip, Float With It. The kick-off event will take place from 1-4 p.m. at Sugar Magnolia Cafe on South White Street in Wake Forest.

The parents’ goal is to educate beachgoers on the safest way to survive rip currents. The couple also wants to improve beach towns’ flag systems to notify swimmers of unsafe ocean conditions, as well as work with first-responders and lifeguards.

Suzi and John plan to leave their home in Raleigh, just outside Wake Forest, later this month and travel to the North Carolina shore. There they will spend each day walking up and down the public beaches, offering to share information on rip currents to everyone they meet.

When summer is over, they plan to travel to Florida and walk the beaches there all winter, doing the same thing. They are both retired, and plan to keep doing this for the rest of their lives.

“The phone call we received about Paige being pulled from the ocean is a phone call no other parent should hear,” Suzi said. “What needs to happen to keep that from happening to anyone else?”

The family is holding a number of fundraisers to finance T-shirts, signs and other materials they will be giving out to educate the public. The Mericals are also encouraging organ donation, after Paige’s organs were able to save five lives, the parents said.

This year, 28 people have died from rip currents in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Seven deaths have been reported in North Carolina.

Officially, the NOAA advises swimmers caught in a rip current to stay calm and swim parallel to the shore, not against the current. If a swimmer can’t escape, they should float and let the current carry them out to sea before swimming away from the current and back to shore or flagging for help.

The Mericals believe no swimmer should try and swim out of a rip current and instead should always flip on their back and let the current carry them away as a first resort. There is some new research that suggests this method might be safer, and the Mericals said they wish they had taught Paige to swim float along instead of swim parallel to the shore. Powerful rip currents can travel as fast as 8 mph and “even Michael Phelps can’t out-swim a rip current,” Suzi said.

The Mericals also encourage all ocean swimmers to have a flotation device. Suzi said there are some flotation devices that can be worn as wristbands and activated easily if the swimmer is in distress.

“We are looking forward to the day — and it’s going to happen — when someone tells us they are alive today because they heard our message,” Suzi said. “That is what we want to hear. That hope is what is keeping us moving forward.”