'Helpless' N.C. Mom Watched Her Boyfriend and Son, 5, Drown in the Ocean: 'It Takes 1 Second'
Erin Peoples, 28, shares her heartbreaking story to warn others about the dangers of rip currents
All Austin Potter wanted to do was take advantage of the weather, but a sunny day ended in tragedy as his girlfriend watched helplessly from the shore.
On the morning of Tuesday, May 14, the app on 24-year-old Potter’s phone said that fish were biting at the nearby Oceanana Pier. His girlfriend, 28-year-old Erin Peoples, said she just didn’t have time. They go to the beach every day, but she had a whole list of chores to do and a moms’ night out planned with her girlfriend.
While Peoples took her 5-year-old son, Liam Okkerse, to his speech therapy appointment, Potter knocked out all the chores on her list, from vacuuming to washing dishes.
“I said, ‘Well, I guess I can’t say no,’” she tells PEOPLE.
After her son ate a big bowl of mixed berries for lunch, the trio drove about 30 minutes from their home in Havelock, North Carolina to Atlantic Beach.
The fish weren’t biting, so Potter put the pole down and he and Liam waded into the water. Unlike the day before, the waves looked gentle. Peoples saw some yellow caution flags, “but every day is a yellow day here — we didn’t think anything of it,” she says.
Their favorite beach spot has a sandbar. “You can walk out and you’re in knee-deep water and you can touch the whole time,” Peoples says. The water was barely touching Liam’s new teal, shark-covered swim trunks he got for Easter.
Peoples stayed on the shore with their dog, a pitbull mix named Harley. She is a woman who prefers swimming in pools to 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. But Liam loved it. And Potter loved it. And Austin was teaching Liam about it,” she says.
She sat on the shore watching. A man walking by noticed that they were being carried further and further out — way too far, too fast. He told Peoples to call 911 and get help immediately.
“I had eyes on Austin and Liam — I didn’t realize that anything was even wrong,” she says.
She watched as Potter hoisted Liam over his head and held the little boy up in the air out of the water.
“Liam was his buddy. He wasn’t going to let anything happen to him,” she tells PEOPLE, starting to cry. “For as long as he could. He did what he could for as long as he could. 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.”
That day, the Atlantic Beach Fire Department happened to be painting the sea wall. They already had four-wheel trucks on the sand, one with a Jet Ski attached, so they arrived at the scene in a matter of minutes, says Atlantic Beach Chief of Police Jeff Harvey.
“Austin did everything he could to keep the little boy’s head above water,” says Harvey, who was at the scene. “Like with many other drowning victims, he may have gotten exhausted and couldn’t go on any further and succumbed to the rip current.”
The fire chief himself, Mike Simpson, jumped on the Jet Ski and pulled the two out of the water.
“It’s very unfortunate, but we’ve had a rash of them down here over the last month — I think there’s been a total of seven [drownings] along our beaches, which is more than we’ve had in the previous three seasons,” Harvey tells PEOPLE. “The thing is, they’re always out there. Rip currents are always there. It’s just unfortunate people get caught in them and are not able to get out.”
Harvey urges people vacationing at the beach to check rip tides and wear life jackets. He won’t let his 3-year-old grandson anywhere near the water without a life vest. “It takes one second,” Harvey says. “You’ve got to be careful.”
If you see a yellow flag, he says, don’t go in past your knees or ankles. If you see a red flag, he says, stay on the sand.
Liam had just registered to start kindergarten in the fall. Every day he asked his mom when they were going to go buy his new backpack. He played soccer and loved cars, dinosaurs, and being outside. He wanted to be just like his older brother, 8-year-old Kayden.
Peoples, a bartender and server at Longhorn Steak House, met Potter at work, where he was also a server. They’d been dating for almost a year. “He was really one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” she says. “He was friendly and outgoing — he would find a friend in anyone everywhere he went.”
At the hospital, staff spent an hour trying to save their lives, but neither survived.
“I have never hoped for something so hard ever in my life,” Peoples says.
She is speaking out to make other mothers vigilante. Peoples asks parents to be cautious and urges them to put on life jackets or strap boogie boards to kids.
Liam didn’t know how to swim. He didn’t have floaties on, because they weren’t planning to go very deep.
“At the end of the day, Austin’s family and my family just hope that this is a lesson. An unfortunate lesson. But if we can help save anybody or make people more aware, then that’s the goal,” she says. “Had I gone in the water, who knows what would have happened. You just stand there. Helpless.”