SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — The swift currents of the Atlantic Ocean apparently swallowed a young woman Thursday afternoon.
The beach was uncrowded at the time, the sky was overcast and the breeze coming off the sea was almost chilly. Perhaps two dozen mid-week beach- goers were scattered here and there along the sand.
About 3:45 p.m., as the tide was quickly receding, two young women went into the water near Station 28, just below Breach Inlet in an area where swimming is allowed but not suggested, Fire Chief Anthony Stith said. Signs posted at beach access paths there warn swimmers of treacherous currents.
The women, in their early 20s, tried to swim out to a sandbar, Stith said. Midway there, the chief said, the current began pulling them out and southward toward Charleston Harbor. They didn't panic or fight the movement, and they swam parallel to the shore.
"They were doing what they were supposed to do," Stith said.
But one of the women quickly tired.
The other, a West Ashley resident, later told Police Chief Danny Howard that she told her friend to float on her back while she went ashore for help. While trying to make it to the beach, she was rescued by an alert tourist.
Matt Ostrica, of Atlanta, was on the beach near Station 22 when he saw the woman waving her hands and screaming for help, Howard said. She had drifted nearly a half mile. Ostrica dove in and pulled her to shore, but her friend wasn't seen again, Howard said.
The West Ashley woman who was rescued was taken to an ambulance and checked.
"She's doing fine," Stith said. "She's shook up, of course."
A young man and woman, drenched with water and visibly shaken, waited outside the ambulance for their friend. They said they were with the swimmers and had just met the missing woman earlier in the day. They said she told them she was from New York City. They didn't identify themselves.
Firefighters were quickly on the water with personal watercrafts to search for the missing swimmer.
Within a half hour, dozens of rescue workers from local agencies were involved. Firefighters and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources searched by boat, while the U.S. Coast Guard and the Charleston County Sheriff's Office looked from above in helicopters.
A grid search produced nothing.
By 6 p.m., an incoming tide was pounding the shore. Onlookers began leaving the beach. Authorities said the woman was presumed dead, and they began searching for a body.
They moved into Charleston Harbor, thinking she might have drifted there. But their efforts were fruitless, and at 7 p.m. they suspended the search. Authorities planned to resume searching at 7 a.m. today.
Howard said the missing woman is 23.