A beach attendant working with a Fort Morgan rental company rushed into the rough Gulf waters of the Fort Morgan peninsula after spotting two women who were struggling to swim ashore on Sunday, as a storm system blew through coastal Alabama.
What the beach attendant did not know was that one of the swimmers was Baldwin County Sheriff’s Deputy Sydney Wentworth, who had entered the water to rescue an woman from drowning, according to Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack.
The attendant, as he approached Wentworth and the woman, began to drown. That’s when Bill Smith — who spent his professional career in public safety serving in sheriff’s offices and fire departments in Alabama and Georgia — entered the waters to make a life-saving rescue that would ultimately cost his life.
“In the process of that rescue, Smith got into some kind of distress and ultimately went under water,” Mack said during a news conference Monday in Robertsdale. “He was found in cardiac arrest.”
Smith was then transported to a newly opened freestanding emergency facility in Gulf Shores, where resuscitation efforts lasted for “over an hour,” Mack said. Smith was pronounced dead at the emergency facility. An autopsy into the cause of his death has not yet taken place.
“Bill Smith did what Bill Smith always did,” an emotional Mack said. “He saw the need to put his life on the line to save someone else’s life and that is what he did. He saved a life yesterday.”
Wentworth and the two swimmers – the woman and the beach attendant – have since been treated for injuries at area hospitals and released. Wentworth, who was a part of a newly formed beach patrol unit with Smith, is recovering from home, said Mack.
Mack said an investigation continues into the circumstances leading up to Smith’s death, including why the unidentified woman was in the dangerous waters. She is an Illinois resident who was in Fort Morgan on vacation. Mack said the beach attendant is a summer resident in Fort Morgan.
Interviews with witnesses are ongoing, Mack said.
“We do believe rip current (played a role) in this,” said Mack. “We believe the surf was continuing to grow as this was going on.”
Beach patrol unit
Smith, a Gulf Shores resident and a native of Calhoun County in Northwest Alabama, was a member of the department’s beach patrol unit that was officially created in March. He and Wentworth were the only two full-time members of the unit, which was assigned to full-time patrols of the unincorporated 20-mile stretch of Fort Morgan. The only other agency that routinely patrols the peninsula is a volunteer fire department.
“What we intended for that beach patrol to do absolutely worked (Sunday),” Mack said. “Had we not had the quick response we did with the deputies being down there, then we would’ve lost one or two lives (on Sunday) other than Deputy Smith.”
Mack said Smith was an “integral part” of formalizing the idea of having a permanent beach patrol unit in Fort Morgan when the concept first surfaced almost two years ago.
The unit was formed, Mack said, because of the rapid growth in the Fort Morgan area leading to an increase in the volume of emergency calls.
The area has been the site of tragic drownings in recent years and remains a vexing concern for Baldwin County officials. Warning flags and lifeguard stations, which are common on the beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, are not present in Fort Morgan largely because much of the property along the peninsula’s beaches are privately owned.
Mack also said that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s decision in March 2020, to close the coastal beaches during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, prompted his agency to look for ways to ensure people avoided the water.
“We were able to make it work and see this thing happen and (the Baldwin County Commission) decided to fund it in October,” said Mack. “It took a while to stand it up with the training we had to do.”
Mack said, “What we intended for the beach patrol to do absolutely worked (on Sunday). Had we not had the quick response that we did with the deputies being down there, we would’ve lost one or two lives other than Deputy Smith.”
Smith and Wentworth received training from the Gulf Shores Fire Rescue Department, Mack said.
Mack also said that Smith also contributed his own skills to the effort. Smith, Mack said, had been employed for the past seven years with his agency and was a former SWAT officer and tactical instructor for several other agencies in Alabama. He also taught at the Northeast Alabama Law Enforcement Academy in Anniston.
Before coming to Baldwin County, Smith spent approximately three years with the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department. His move to Calhoun County came after he retired from a 30-year career as a firefighter, with his longest tenure occurring in the Atlanta suburb of Dekalb County.
Calhoun County Sheriff Michael Wade said Smith was universally respected by his peers and had a reputation for being a likable person who a lot of people in the county knew personally.
“Anytime you talked to him, you felt better when you got done talking with him,” said Wade, who was the county’s chief deputy when Smith was working with the county. “He was an upbeat guy. People loved him and he loved people. I’ve had people tell me (on Monday) that they wish they could have switched places with him. He was just that kind of guy We are devastated.”
Mack said Smith’s move into policing after spending 30 years in firefighting was “unique” and illustrated a strong sense of public service.
“Bill caught a lot of flak for that,” Mack said. “There is a little bit of brotherly love, as we say, between firefighters and police officers. He wore it like a badge of honor. He said, ‘I always thought firefighting was my first calling’ but then he got into law enforcement and say, ‘maybe this is my first calling’ and that ‘I did my second calling first.’ It is rare. But once again, it goes to the public servant hat Bill Smith had devoted over 30 years of his life in trying to help others and save other people.”
Wade said Smith was a Calhoun County native, who attended Alexandria High School before entering firefighting. Smith was once the fire chief in Weaver, population 3,077 people.
He spent most of his career in Georgia with Dekalb County Fire Rescue in suburban Georgia, where he retired as deputy chief.
Danny Dwyer, a retired Atlanta fire captain, worked under Smith from 2003-2005, while the two were in Dekalb County. He said Smith’s career in Georgia was “legendary” and that his leadership skills affected many firefighters who worked for him.
Dwyer said a group of firefighters who worked under Smith affectionately referred to themselves as “Bill’s boys.”
“He was exceptionally good at his job,” he said. “The guy was infectious. He was of average stature, but whenever he walked into a room, the guy commanded respect.”
Mack said the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department will post updates on its website concerning arrangements. He said Smith leaves behind a wife and two adult sons.
Smith’s beach patrol Ford F-150 pick-up truck will be parked on Alabama State Route 59 next to the Region’s Bank in Robertsdale for the coming days so that people can pay respects.
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