Tennessee Mother Who Lost Her Son in Rip Tide Turns Tragedy into Mission to Help Others

“It’s been so helpful to know that we’ve made a difference.”

Angela Tyler Spann
Photo: Angela Spann

Three years ago, on what was to be a joyful family vacation, Angela and Kimmy Spann faced every parent's worst fear. Their perfectly healthy, strong, 15-year-old son died. Now, Angela has made it her life's mission to turn their tragedy into actions that will hopefully save many other families from sharing the same horrible grief.

Angela and Kimmy's older son was busy with football and college, so they let their son Tyler pick the vacation spot and his choice was Panama City Beach. Angela recently spoke with Southern Living and she shared that he wasn't really comfortable around water so she thought it was a little odd that he chose the beach, but they packed up the car and headed from their home in Lexington, Tennessee, to Florida. On their first full day at the beach, Tyler was playing with friends in what Angela described as "ankle-deep" water while she sat on the beach. All of the sudden, she didn't see him anymore. One of Tyler's friends ran up and down the beach with Angela looking for Tyler and shouting, "help me, my son's in the water," as she recounted to us. There was some commotion on the water and several men jumped into the water while several women called for paramedics. Then, Angela said, "all the women circled around me and they began to pray."

Forty-five minutes later Tyler was pulled from the water. Angela was in shock. "When he came out the water, he just looked like Tyler. I just thought he was fine, well not fine but I thought oh wow he's going to the hospital." Angela and Kimmy stood by as the doctors tried to revive their son but it was too late. Tyler was gone. "My dad had just passed the year before so I kinda whispered in Tyler's ear, you know, go ahead and be with your Pop pa and it was like a few seconds later and he passed," she explained.

Angela Spann
Angela Spann

Shortly after leaving the hospital, Donate Life called the Spanns. Angela recalled what she was thinking just moments earlier as she sat for the last time with her son. "And I just thought why would God take this beautiful body that still has so much earthly good about it? I just don't understand that. Why would you let him be so perfect and take this?" She knew she was being called to tell Donate Life that, yes, they could take what they needed. Due to the circumstances of Tyler's death, his organs were not used but his tissue was. Tyler was able to either save or increase the quality of life for at least 76 people. "Other than missing him, we're just so extremely proud of him," Angela said.

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That was just the beginning of Tyler's impact: He was chosen as the first honoree for minority donor month, and Angela is now an ambassador for Donate Life—and that's not all. When Angela and Kimmy arrived back home in Tennessee, they were inundated with donations. The Spanns decided to turn that money and Tyler's story into a purpose. They were going to help others, so they created the Tyler Spann Foundation.

Through the foundation, the Spann family wants to help as many people as they can, in as many ways as they can, in their son's name. The first area they focused on was awareness and education surrounding rip tides and what the different colored flags at the beach mean. "I never saw the flag. I think they are just way too far apart, that's one thing and I think that each hotel or resort or wherever you're staying should hand you out that simple flyer with each flag and what it means," Angela said. "That should be common information. What each flag color means. People should know that upon entering a beach." She also wants to educate people on not only what a rip tide is but how to safely escape one.

The Spanns and their friends have also helped in many other ways, working to organize water safety courses, hold a crayon drive, and host "come sit by me" campaigns in schools. They even established a scholarship fund, and six of Tyler's classmates were awarded college scholarships in his name. "It's been so helpful to know that we've made a difference."

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