Friends remember Greenville man who died trying to save others from rip current

ATLANTIC BEACH, N.C. (WNCT) – A man is dead after getting caught up in a rip current Sunday morning.

9 On Your Side has learned 21-year-old Justin Eakes, one of two victims rescued from the ocean in Atlantic Beach, is deceased.

“He was a good person, noble,” his friend 20-year-old Brian Kelly said. “He lost his life actually trying to help somebody.”

Kelly and Eakes attended Farmville Central High School together. Kelly was at the beach with Eakes when they were caught in the rip current around 11 a.m. on Sunday. Kelly said Eakes was almost to shore, but turned around and helped people get out. It ultimately cost him his life. 

“It’s dangerous,” Kelly said. “We really all believed that we were going to lose our lives. We said goodbye to all the things we loved, and it’s just a sad thing that out of all of us, it was Justin.”

Atlantic Beach fire chief Adam Snyder told WNCT at the time that Eakes was transported to Carteret Health Care before being transported to Vidant in Greenville. At that time, he was listed in critical condition. He has since died.

At last check, a  19-year-old female victim remains at Carteret Health Care and is expected to be okay.

New Bern resident Matt Smith was one of the first to respond to the scene.

“It was terrible,” Smith said. “Some of those images will be hard to erase.”

It happened behind the Double Tree hotel, about 100 yards down from the boardwalk.

“We looked out, saw him floating face down unfortunately in the waves, ran out, brought him up to the beach and started doing CPR on him,” Smith said.

The Atlantic Beach Fire Department arrived shortly after and transported both victims to the local hospital. This all happened at an unguarded beach, without a lifeguard or warning sign in sight.

“If it was in a supervised area, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all,” Snyder said. “They probably might have gotten in trouble, but again, when they are coming down, it’s a red flag. The lifeguards are whistling you in. They know where the danger is. They know where the sandbar is. They know that you are getting out too far.”

Lifeguards are urging beachgoers to stay in a supervised area. Even so, Smith said when the winds and rip currents are high, he believes getting in the water is not worth the risk.

“Days like today I would even consider not going in,” Smith said. “There is little creases where the waves cross where you suspect there is a rip current, so even if I was going to go in, I wouldn’t go very far. Sometimes not very far is too far.”

The rescue comes one day after a 56-year-old-man died near the Henderson Avenue public beach access in Atlantic Beach after suffering cardiac arrest and drowning while attempting to save two teenage girls from a rip current.

“We urge people, if you are going to do this on a beach, grab anything, a body board, a cooler, whatever floats, take that with you to stabilize those people,” Snyder said. “When the fire department arrives on scene, they can come out and get you.”

That rip current death is the second in just over a week along the Crystal Coast. Last Saturday, 17-year-old Elijah Hinnant of Goldsboro died after getting caught in a rip current in Emerald Isle. His body was spotted in the water by swimmers several days later.

Red flags have been flying up and down the North Carolina coast since late last week for rough surf that is creating dangerous rip currents.

“We are at about 20-25 rescues from the beginning of summer, May 24 until today,” Snyder said. “Just this weekend in itself has been really bad because of the high surf conditions and the wind which is causing a significant pull on the rip currents.”

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