SUNSET BEACH, N.C. -- A North Carolina judge and the woman he tried to rescue both drowned off Sunset Beach, and authorities blamed rip currents for those deaths and a third one off another Brunswick County beach.

Chief District Court Judge Mitchell McLean, 54, died Wednesday while trying to help a husband and wife struggling in the water. McLean was the chief judge for Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin counties.

Also killed was Mary Anne Galway, 55, of Waxhaw, whom McLean was trying to rescue. Authorities say her husband, Edward John Galway III, 59, was treated at a hospital and released.

At Ocean Isle Beach, authorities said William Nicolaro, 72, of Palm Harbor, Fla. Nicolaro’s son made it to shore and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

The National Weather Service issued a warning for a severe rip current threat that continued through at least Thursday afternoon, Sunset Beach police Chief Lisa Massey said. Rip currents are strong channels of water that are difficult for the untrained eye to see. Panicked swimmers often drown from exhaustion as they try to fight the current.

When conditions are favorable for rip currents, individuals should swim at beaches with lifeguards, said Brad Reinhart, NWS meteorologist in Wilmington.

If caught in a rip current, people should let the water carry them out to sea while trying to swim parallel to shore, as the currents are usually narrow and funnel through breaks in sandbars.

“Rip currents are fairly common at our beaches,” Reinhart said. “Even on days when we have a low risk of rip currents you can see individual ones that might be powerful enough to pull a child or someone that’s not a strong swimmer. Any swimmer should be aware of the threat and know how to effectively escape it.”