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Friday memorial on the beach will honor NC’s latest drowning victim

May 17, 2019

The ocean can be deceiving. Even on days when the water looks calm, what’s under the surface can be dangerous.

That was the case for a man and boy who drowned Tuesday at Atlantic Beach. Erin Peoples said she watched helplessly as her boyfriend and her 5-year-old son were swept away.

It will be awhile before she is ready to return to the sand and surf, now the site of a family tragedy.

Atlantic Beach is only a half-hour drive from the home Peoples shared with Austin Potter in Havelock.

“We’ve been to the beach 15, 20 times since it warmed up,” she said.

Tuesday was another beach outing for the pair and Peoples’ two sons whom, she says, Potter loved like they were his own.

“Liam was his buddy. He was trying to teach him how to catch the waves and fish,” Peoples said.

Yellow flags were flying, but the ocean looked serene. She saw other people in the water.

“They went into the water to play for a few minutes before we decided we were ready to leave,” she said.

The water was only up to Liam’s knees.

Peoples said she heard no yelling. She just saw Potter and Liam drifting out. At one point, Potter hoisted Liam above his head.

“He kept him out,” she said. “He did everything he could to make sure that Liam was going to be OK. He did until he couldn’t.”

Peoples called 911. A firefighter on a personal watercraft retrieved Potter and Liam, both unresponsive. Neither one could be revived.

D.J. Okkerse, Liam’s dad, called their deaths “a freak accident.”

On Friday evening, family and friends will hold a memorial service for Potter at Oceana Pier, near the site of his drowning.

Peoples urged beach-goers to pay attention to the flags and ask about the conditions. She thinks beach communities are doing all they can to protect people from rip currents.

There was not a lifeguard on duty at Atlantic Beach this week. The National Park Service staffs lifeguards only at four beaches and only between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day. The National Weather Service publishes daily assessments of the rip current danger on the web.

To keep swimmers safe in the pool, Wake County is in the process of inspecting and permitting more than 1,200 public pools. Inspectors check the chemical levels of the water and the condition of the pool facilities, as well as the safety equipment and any gates or fences.