Birmingham-area fathers identified as men killed in Panama City Beach rip current: ‘They were inseparable’

A weekend trip to Florida turned deadly for three young Birmingham-area fathers who died after getting caught in a rip current at Panama City Beach.

The Bay County Sheriff’s Office identified the victims as Harold Denzel Hunter, 25, Jemonda Ray, 24, and Marius Richardson, also 24.

Ray and Richardson were cousins, who, according to family members, grew up like brothers. Hunter was their friend. Their families on Saturday said they are working to have their loved ones returned to Alabama.

“I just wish the outcome was better than what it is,” said Jayla Ray, whose brother Jemonda was among the three killed. “I’m just glad they were found and they’re able to come home.”

The three men were part of a group of six who arrived in Panama City Beach on Friday to stay at an Airbnb. Ray’s girlfriend, Richardson’s wife, and one of Hunter’s cousins also made the trip.

“They checked into their rental and rushed out to get in the water,’’ said Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford.

They entered the water about 8 p.m. and were quickly swept away in the rip current. The young men were reported missing near the Watercress Condominiums at 6201 Thomas Drive.

All three swimmers were eventually rescued from the dark waters and sent to local hospitals for treatment where they died.

Ray, the father of a toddler son, graduated from Jackson-Olin High School in Birmingham and worked at Amazon.

His mother, Iris Richardson, is heartbroken.

“I called him ‘Dad,’ because he acted like my dad,’’ Richardson said. “He kept everybody with smiles on his face. He was the sweetest person.”

The men were in chest-deep water when they became distressed.

“The detective told me they were trying to make it back to shore, but the current got the best of them,’’ Richardson said.

“It’s hard,’’ she said. “He made sure he saw me every day.”

Ray loved football, playing in Birmingham youth leagues and then at Jackson-Olin. He was an avid Green Bay Packers fan.

“He was loved,’’ his sister said. “He left here knowing he was loved.”

Ray and his cousin, Marius, had grown up together since birth.

“They were two peas in a pod,’’ Richardson said. “They were inseparable.”

Marius Richardson, a Woodlawn High School graduate, leaves behind his wife and a 2-year-old- son.

“He was hardworking too,’’ Richardson said. “He was always taking care of his family. He was a good person.”

Hunter was a graduate of Minor High School in Jefferson County and worked for Mavis Tires & Brakes.

He leaves behind two young children – a son and a daughter.

“He was the life of the party,’’ said his sister, Selina Black. “He was always smiling. He wanted everybody up, even when he was down.”

Hunter loved his children, and he loved music.

“He was our own personal DJ,’’ Black said.

Family said they will most miss his laughter, and his contagious high-energy spirit.

“This was all so unexpected and hit the family hard,’’ she said.

A GoFundMe has been started to help Hunter’s family. Donations can be made here.

“I have such a heavy heart this morning about the loss of three young visitors to our community,’’ Sheriff Ford said in a Facebook post. “I’m praying for their family and ask that you do the same. It is such a tragedy.”

“I witnessed so many people, including visitors to our community, come together last night on the beach to desperately search for them,’’ he said. “The acts of courage by first responders were amazing.”

“Many of our rescue swimmers with the sheriff’s office, Bay County Emergency Services and Panama City Beach went into the dark and dangerous waters for over two hours to attempt to rescue and search for the young men,’’ Ford said. “I worry about the emotional toll that these situations take on first responders as I know I’m struggling with it as well.”

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