Sheriff: Ala. deputy's drowning gave 3 people 'second chance of life'
Deputy Bill Smith is credited with helping to save three swimmers from dangerous currents
By John Sharp
BALDWIN COUNTY, Ala. — Baldwin County Sheriff Deputy Bill Smith died from an accidental drowning after attempting to save a teenager who was in distress Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico near the Dunes condo in the Fort Morgan peninsula, Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack said Thursday.
Mack, during a news conference in Robertsdale, said Smith was the first one in the water after a receiving call about a swimmer in distress in the Gulf’s rough surf. Previous reports had indicated it was his partner, Deputy Sydney Wentworth, who arrived first.
At the time of Smith’s arrival, two other women were in the Gulf and were struggling in the dangerous surf. One had a flotation device, and one did not.
The teenage boy had entered the Gulf attempting to rescue the women, but he got caught in the rough surf.
“We believe Deputy Smith made his way to one of the women, who had on a life preserver,” Mack said. “When he saw she had a preserver on her, he diverts to the teenage boy who now was in distress because of the waves.”
Wentworth then arrived, Mack said.
“There is a conversation between the two deputies,” Mack said. “She goes to the woman who appears to be in distress. The woman was very much in distress by the time Deputy Wentworth got to her. She saved her life.”
Rescue and tragedy
Smith reached the teenager and deployed a portable flotation device he had on him. The teenager was able to grab it.
“There was a conversation between the two,” Smith said. “The waves really started to pick up and they got into a roll under. We believe at that point in time, Deputy Smith and the teenager were rolled into the surf and taken to the bottom. It was shortly after that (in which) Bill and the teenager were separated.”
Mack said the teenager got his head above water and spotted Smith “floating on the top of the water.”
Two jet skies arrived at the scene with Gulf Shores police and the U.S. Coast Guard to assist in the rescue, said Mack. The Coast Guard assisted in getting Wentworth and the woman she saved out of the water.
“It’s unfortunate Bill Smith died, but we must remember that he and Deputy Wentworth saved three lives that day by their actions,” Mack said. ‘While we lost a deputy, we saved three civilians who have a second chance of life right now.”
The Gulf Shores Police Department was charged with handling the investigation, which Mack said is almost completed. He said the differing stories from initial reports were the result of the chaotic scene of having multiple people in distress while attempting to get out of the dangerous Gulf.
“I truly believe some of the people who said they saw something probably did see it,” said Mack. “They just didn’t realize who it was they were seeing. Unless you are standing in the exact same place at the same time, you won’t see things the same way especially if you’re dealing with a traffic incident.”
Wentworth and Smith were the founding members of a new Beach Patrol Unit within the Sheriff’s Department. The unit officially started in March, and Wentworth and Smith had undergone advanced training for the duty.
Mack said Smith was a paramedic and was “probably more trained in that area than most people who do it full-time.”
Honor and concerns
Smith, 57, will be honored during a funeral service starting at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Baldwin County Coliseum in Robertsdale. It will be followed by a funeral procession starting around 4 p.m. and will go through Alabama State Route 59 in Robertsdale. A visitation will start at 12:30 p.m. at the coliseum.
Since Sunday, Mack said stories have poured in about Smith, who spent roughly 43 years in public service. Smith began his career as a firefighter at age 15 and rose the ranks to becoming a battalion chief at a suburban Atlanta fire department. After 30 years in firefighting, he switched careers to law enforcement and became a sheriff’s deputy in Calhoun County before relocating to Gulf Shores and joining the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department about seven years ago.
Mack said affectionately called “Bill stories” – referring to his time in public safety — have been going on for days. Smith’s pick-up truck has been parked along Route 59 in Robertsdale has turned into memorial visited by large numbers of people.
“We’d had people out there 24 hours a day, and groups of people as big as 75 at one time who are paying their respects,” Mack said.
Meanwhile, Mack and other officials are looking for ways to boost safety at unincorporated Fort Morgan, where there are no lifeguards and no flag-warning system as there are on the beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The 20-mile stretch of beaches are mostly occupied by private beach houses, and concerns about liability have loomed over options for increasing safety.
Mack said he’s had deputies within his department volunteer for the beach patrol in recent days. He believes improved messaging will help. But he said people visiting the peninsula must be mindful of “personal responsibility.”
Mack referred to a drowning that happened near the tip of the peninsula on Wednesday. James Campbell, 63, of Athens, died while swimming in the Gulf. Others also had to be rescued.
The drowning occurred while other red warning flags waved in other parts of coastal Alabama. A red flag indicates a “high hazard” due to high surf in the Gulf. While double red flags close the waters, a single red flag effectively allows them to stay open to swimmers. But public safety officials also urge the public not to enter the waters while there are red flags flying since the currents are dangerous and can overcome even the best swimmers quickly.
“The biggest thing is people don’t appreciate how violent and powerful that Gulf is,” Mack said. “I’ve been in the Gulf and felt it pull at you and you do start to panic a little bit. If a general civilian who has never really swam or been in the Gulf of Mexico that much, it will catch you by surprise.”
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