The dead of night Saturday morning was right in the middle of Carrabelle Police Officer Brice Carlson’s last shift.
Working with the department for the past two years, Carlson had decided to try a new career, and so was ready to turn in his badge and bid a fond farewell to law enforcement when he got off that day.
About 1:39 a.m., as the rest of the town slept, or got ready to wrap up a night of celebration after Friday night’s graduation celebration, Carlson was dispatched to do a welfare check on a vacationer from Alabama, whose wife said he had left about 8 p.m. to go wade fishing near Carrabelle Beach and had not returned.
Carlson soon found the man’s fishing cart near the east point of the beach, and noticed footprints on the beach leading out into the water, but none coming back onto the shore.
With the assistance of Chief Gary Hunnings, Carlson opted to launch his personal shallow draft vessel, outfitted with lights to help in the search. The lawmen grabbed what they expected they might need, including a body bag, just in case.
“We thought it might be a recovery,” said Hunnings.
Once they got at least a quarter-mile out, maybe as much as 800 yards off the shoreline, they ventured past some crab trap buoys, but didn’t hear anything unusual.
“The motor was kind of loud," said Hunnings.”I seen the buoy but I didn’t see him,"
The chief hadn't noticed anything, but Carlson did, and at about 4 a.m., eight hours after he had left for the beach from the couple’s vacation spot, the missing fisherman was spotted, clinging to a small buoy and struggling to keep his head above water.
Carlson and Hunnings pulled the man to safety and returned him to shore. Though tired and severely fatigued, Joseph Hightower, 54, of Salem, Alabama was otherwise unharmed.
He said he had waded out to fish and was caught off-guard by the quickly rising tide after losing his footing just after sunset. Despite his efforts, he was unable to return to shore and was swept out by the current.
“He said he tried to swim back but he couldn’t fight the current,” Hunnings said. “He was a very lucky individual. I can’t believe he lasted that long.”
Hightower told the officers he had been treading water, clinging to the buoy some eight hours before being rescued. “I just want to thank the officer and everyone else who assisted,” he said. “I’m very grateful.”
He and his wife, Susan, and their family have decided to name the buoy that kept him afloat “Wilson,” no doubt after the volleyball of the same name that helped the Tom Hanks character, stranded alone on an island, keep his sanity in the film “Cast Away.” Carlson presented the buoy to Hightower as a keepsake before he ended his last shift.
Assistance was also provided by officers from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as well as the Franklin Correctional Institution K-9 team, which combed the shoreline with dogs in search of Hightower.
During his tenure with the department since 2017, Carlson “has diligently served the citizens of Carrabelle with high integrity, building immense rapport with his community,” Hunnings said.
“Officer Carlson has been a great asset to Carrabelle Police Department and we would like to wish him farewell as he completed his last shift with the search and rescue of Mr. Hightower,” said the chief. “This act of heroism has earned Officer Carlson the Life Saving Commendation Award. Good luck in all your future endeavors Officer Carlson, it’s been an honor serving with you.”