Drowning of Congressman Baldwin Bill Smith gave 3 people ‘second chance at life’, sheriff says
Baldwin County Deputy Sheriff Bill Smith died of accidental drowning after trying to rescue a distressed teenager on Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico near the Dunes condo on the Fort Morgan Peninsula, said Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack Thursday.
Mack, at a press conference in Robertsdale, said Smith was the first in the water after receiving a call about a swimmer in distress in choppy Gulf waves. Previous reports had indicated that it was his partner, Deputy Sydney Wentworth, who had arrived first.
At the time of Smith’s arrival, two other women were in the Gulf struggling in the dangerous waves. One had a flotation device and the other did not.
The teenager had entered the Gulf in an attempt to save the women, but found himself caught in the rough waves.
“We believe Deputy Smith walked over to one of the women, who was wearing a life jacket,” Mack said. “When he saw that she had a conservative on her, he turned to the teenager who was now in distress from the waves.”
Wentworth then arrived, Mack said.
“There is a conversation between the two MPs,” Mack said. “She goes to see the woman who appears to be in distress. The woman was in great distress when Deputy Wentworth joined her. She saved his life.
Rescue and tragedy
Smith reached out to 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 gain momentum and they collapsed. We believe that at that point, Deputy Smith and the teenager were rolled into the waves and taken to the bottom. It was shortly after (during which) Bill and the teenager were separated.
Mack said the teenager had his head above water and spotted Smith “floating above the water”.
Two jets arrived at the scene with Gulf Shores police and the U.S. Coast Guard to assist with the rescue, Mack said. The Coast Guard helped pull Wentworth and the woman she rescued out of the water.
“It’s unfortunate that Bill Smith is dead, but we have to 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 now have a second chance at life. “
The Gulf Shores Police Department has been tasked with handling the investigation, which Mack says is nearing completion. He said the different stories from the initial reports were a result of the chaotic scene where several people were in distress as they attempted to escape the dangerous Gulf.
“I really believe that some of the people who said they saw something probably saw it,” Mack said. “They just didn’t realize who 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 are 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 began 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 this area than most people who do it full time.”
Honor and cares
Smith, 57, will be honored at a funeral service starting at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Baldwin County Coliseum in Robertsdale. It will be followed by a funeral procession which will begin around 4 p.m. and will pass through Alabama State Route 59 in Robertsdale. A visit will start at 12:30 p.m. at the Colosseum.
Since Sunday, Mack said stories were pouring out about Smith, who spent about 43 years in public service. Smith began his career as a firefighter at the age of 15 and rose through the ranks to become a battalion commander in a suburban Atlanta fire department. After 30 years in firefighting, he changed careers in law enforcement and became a Sheriff’s Deputy in Calhoun County before moving to Gulf Shores and joining the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department. about seven years ago.
Mack said the affectionately called “Bill Stories” – referring to his time in public safety – had gone on for days. Smith’s van, parked along Highway 59 in Robertsdale, turned into a memorial visited by many.
“We had had people there 24 hours a day and groups of 75 at a time paying tribute to us,” Mack said.
Meanwhile, Mack and other officials are looking for ways to beef up security at unincorporated Fort Morgan, where there are no lifeguards and no flag warning system like there are on the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach beaches. The 20-mile stretch of beaches are mostly occupied by private beach houses, and liability concerns have loomed over options to increase safety.
Mack said he had had assistants in his department volunteering for the beach patrol in recent days. He thinks better messaging will help. But he said people visiting the peninsula should be aware of their “personal responsibility”.
Mack spoke of a drowning on Wednesday near the tip of the peninsula. James Campbell, 63, of Athens, died swimming in the Gulf. Others also had to be rescued.
The drowning occurred as other warning red flags were waved in other parts of the Alabama coast. A red flag indicates a “high risk” due to heavy swell in the Gulf. While double red flags close the waters, a single red flag effectively keeps them open to swimmers. But public safety officials are also urging the public not to enter the waters while red flags are fluttering, as the currents are dangerous and can quickly defeat even the best swimmers.
“Most importantly, people don’t appreciate how violent and powerful Gulf is,” Mack said. “I’ve been in the Gulf and I felt it pulling on you and you start to panic a bit. If a civilian who has never really swam or been in the Gulf of Mexico, this will surprise you.
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