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Update: Mississippi man drowns off St. George Island

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

A sudden, devastating tragedy unfolded Monday afternoon off St. George Island, as a 40-year-old Mississippi man drowned in the rough waters offshore.

Sheriff A.J. Smith said William Irby, of New Albany, Mississippi, had arrived Saturday with his wife and two children, ages 16 and 8, and were staying in a unit in the 400 block of East Gorrie Drive.

The sheriff said that at about 1:30 p.m, Irby’s 16-year-old son had become distressed on a sandbar while swimming about 50 yards offshore and so Irby went out to get him.

“The weather was rough, it was white capping,” said Smith. ““The conditions were pretty rough out there.”

A group of people on the beach also swam out to retrieve the two, and were able to bring the boy back safely. Irby was unresponsive, so it took them longer to bring him in, said the sheriff.

A nearby deputy ran to assist, and was joined by first responders from the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department, emergency medical staff from Weems Memorial Hospital as well as people on the beach, in assisting with CPR.

“They did an exemplary job trying to save this guy’s life,” said Smith. “Everybody worked really hard to try to save his life.”

Irby was transported to Weems, where he was pronounced dead.

Smith said sheriff’s office staffers, including the victim advocate, have reached out to help the family, who are returning today to New Albany.

“Everybody’s stepped up, and we’re really thankful and appreciative,” he said. “They didn’t know anybody here.”

Smith said the department is considering additional ways, along with the flag notification system, of making visitors aware of the threat of rough water.

“People coming here for vacation they often don’t understand how treacherous these waters can be,” he said. “When the wind’s blowing hard, stay out of the water. Wait until it settles down.”

“It’s a terrible tragedy,” Smith said. “A very sad thing.”

’We felt something wasn’t right’

Editor’s note: The following is a first-person account of what happened Monday afternoon on the beach on St. George Island. The author has asked to be identified only by the initials A.S.

We parked at 5th Street East and accessed the beach via that public boardwalk. The drowning happened about 75 or 100 yards south from that access point.

At 1:15 p.m., we were about to leave the beach because of frequent thundering and lightning offshore. Rough waves and surf conditions with undertow. Whitecaps were visible. I believe there was a squall a further distance away, making swimming conditions difficult. South of us, the sky was brightening and clearing up.

As we packed up, our 21-month-old daughter likes to run so she went into the direction of the family of the deceased man. My wife chased after her to make sure she was supervised. A few minutes later, I saw that my daughter and wife were quite a distance away so I ran over there to go play with them.

Then, my wife brought to my attention of a man, and what I assumed to be his son, swimming about 50 to 60 yards past shore. At that time, it appeared there was no struggle, but we felt something wasn't right. Even then, despite their attempts to swim back, it appears they weren't getting closer, perhaps on account of the undertow.

So, we asked the wife if they needed help. The daughter, 8 years old, who was on the beach with her mother, was crying and visibly upset. Before all this happened, we were informed that the daughter and her brother were both swimming out there together. Apparently he had swum a bit too far, and she came back on beach. That's when dad went out there to go get him.

There were a few onlookers on the beach watching the dad and his son. After we talked with the wife more, she seemed uncertain so we again looked back at the ocean - I saw the dad go down under the surface so that's when I knew the situation was problematic. I swam out there to see if I can help. Halfway there, I saw the son was trying to keep his dad afloat. By the time I arrived, the son was exhausted and his dad was unconscious. He had already swallowed a lot of water and was heavy.

So I took over and grabbed the dad, whose appearance indicated clear signs of being oxygen-deprived. From where we were, I couldn't touch the bottom so it was really difficult to keep him above surface with the waves coming in. I struggled with this and kept trying to bring dad closer to the beach for about three to four minutes or so, and started getting exhausted until someone else came out with a surfboard. That was a big help and I held on the board and the legs of the dad while this other gentleman supported the dad's head above water. It was slow work trying to get back to the beach until two other gentlemen came out to help pull the board with more strength. Another surfboard was brought out for the son and he was able to get on that and be pulled back to the beach safely.

Finally, we were able to stand up in the waves and several men grabbed the dad to pull him ashore when the wife, who is a nurse herself, performed CPR right away. While all this was going on, my wife and a friend of ours watched the daughter to comfort her. For resuscitation attempts, first it was rotational CPR with several people helping, then medical equipment arrived with an AED (automated external defibrillator), then later a Stryker machine was brought in to do automatic chest compressions. It felt like they were doing this for an eternity (not exactly sure since mind was exhausted with emotions) but more likely around 15 minutes of this.

Then we all lifted him on temporary stretcher through the dunes onto the main stretcher for the ambulance. Later around 5:45 p.m. we found out he didn't make it.