Mom Watches in Horror as Her Son & Boyfriend Drown in a Rip Current 'in Seconds'

Erin Peoples
Facebook/Erin Peoples

There is no greater tragedy than losing a child. It's a pain that mother Erin Peoples from Havelock, North Carolina, recently had to learn after she helplessly watched her 5-year-old son and her boyfriend, Austin Potter, die when they got swept in a rip current and didn't survive. Despite her grief, the mom is sharing her story to warn others, explaining how a fun day at the beach turned into the worst moment of her life.

  •  The tragedy happened in May, when Peoples' son, Liam Okkerse, and her boyfriend took a trip with her to Atlantic Beach.

    Peoples thought that they didn't have time to go to the beach, reported People, but on May 14 her boyfriend helped her work through her to-do list to find the time. 

    “I said, ‘Well, I guess I can’t say no,’” she recalled.

    Potter had wanted to spend the day fishing, but when they arrived at the beach the fish weren't biting. Instead, he took Peoples's 5-year-old son, Liam, for some fun in the water.

    "He decided we're going to take Liam out to swim," she told ABC 11. "And when I say swim I mean stand in the water. Liam wasn't old enough or big enough to be swimming at this point."

    "They were knee deep where Liam could touch, where Liam could be because he was little. And Austin knew that. Austin would never put him in a situation where he couldn't handle it," she added.

    The waves that day were gentle, though there were yellow flags out -- a sign meant to warn beachgoers that the water was rough but not life-threatening.

    "Every day is a yellow day here -- we didn’t think anything of it,” Peoples explained. While Potter and Okkerse waded out to the sandbar, the mom stayed back because she prefers swimming pools to swimming in the ocean. 

    “The ocean, where things that you can’t see touch you and it’s deep and it’s never ending -- I wasn’t a huge fan of it," she said. "But Liam loved it. And Potter loved it. And Austin was teaching Liam about it.”

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  • But the water was too rough for her little guy and he started to struggle.

    The mom said she was watching her son and boyfriend in the water, when a stranger came up to her and warned that he felt they were too far out. He told her it looked they like were getting carried out farther and farther into the water, too fast, and he was concerned. He urged the mom to call 911 and get help, though she was still in disbelief.

    “I had eyes on Austin and Liam -- I didn’t realize that anything was even wrong,” she recalled. But it appeared her boyfriend knew they were in danger. She saw him pick up her son and lift him above his head in the water. “Liam was his buddy. He wasn’t going to let anything happen to him,” she said as she started to cry, but the force of the rip current was too strong.

    “For as long as he could. He did what he could for as long as he could," she said. "They never went under. As waves crash and thrash you go under. But I was able to see them the whole time. The whole time. I just kept watching and making sure I could see two.”

    Atlantic Beach Chief of Police Jeff Harvey confirmed that Potter had worked hard to keep the boy from going under. “Austin did everything he could to keep the little boy’s head above water,” he said.

    Fire department members were nearby and were quickly able to make it to the scene in a matter of minutes, but it wasn't soon enough. "Like with many other drowning victims, he may have gotten exhausted and couldn’t go on any further and succumbed to the rip current,” Harvey said.

    Fire Chief Mike Simpson had ridden out into the water on one of the jet skis the fire department had on shore and personally pulled the two out of the water.

    “It takes one second,” Harvey said. “You’ve got to be careful.”

    The two were rushed to the hospital, and staff spent an hour trying to save their lives. “I have never hoped for something so hard ever in my life,” the mom recalled. But it was too late. Both Okkerse and Potter had drowned.

  • Devastated, the mom said she had to tell her older son that his "best friend" was never coming home.

    "I think that was probably one of the most heartbreaking amongst everything else is having to come home telling him his best friend wouldn't be coming home," the mom told ABC 11. "[Liam] wanted to be just like his big brother."

    Liam's father, DJ Okkerse, also spoke out and shared that he respected the man who risked his life for his son. "Another man willing to step in and be a role as a stepfather and do what he had to do. Austin was an amazing man. Amazing man," the dad said, though it was clear he was upset.

    "I'm playing the strong role right now for his mom and for my oldest kid. But it's destroyed me,absolutely destroyed me," Okkerse said. "This isn't a pain that you can describe."

    On May 17, nearly 200 people gathered at Atlantic Beach to honor Potter and Liam, CBS 17 reported.

    "Everywhere we went Austin knew somebody. It didn't matter whether he had only spoken to them one time. He left an impression," Peoples explained.

    Potter's family has decided to cremate him, and there were reportedly plans to spread his ashes along the shoreline. "He called it his ocean, his beach. This is where he wanted to be," Peoples continued.

    The mom is using her tragic experience as a warning to other parents who may not be aware of the dangers of ignoring flags at the beach.

    “At the end of the day, Austin’s family and my family just hope that this is a lesson," she told People. "An unfortunate lesson. But if we can help save anybody or make people more aware, then that’s the goal. Had I gone in the water, who knows what would have happened. You just stand there. Helpless.”

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