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SGI first responder drowns during rescue

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

A first responder with the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department drowned Tuesday afternoon while attempting to rescue swimmers off the beach.

St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department

Bud Hayes, a member of the fire department board, said Brian Stephen Smith, 56, was pronounced dead at Weems Memorial Hospital after an emergency medical crew, and law enforcement officials, tried unsuccessfully to save him just before 2 p.m.

Hayes said Smith worked as a property manager at 300 Ocean Mile and had been with the volunteer department since Aug. 2016.

"He went in to rescue a man and a juvenile and he got swept up," said Hayes. "He was a great guy. It was tragic. He was young and energetic and added a whole lot to the department. He will be missed."

More: County commission salute a fallen hero

Sheriff A.J. Smith went live on Facebook about 4 p.m. to share what had happened, and pleaded with visitors not to swim when conditions are treacherous, as they were Tuesday, when a double red flag warning was out.

"Don’t go in the water, or allow your children in the water," he said. "You're putting other people at risk. That surf was so rough; there's a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico."

He said deputies would be roving the beach, and asking people to leave the water. "If you're in the water and told to leave and you don’t, you'll be arrested, There's no reason for any other loss of life," said Smith.

"We're all heartbroken, to lose a first responder who heeded the call to go rescue someone. We're all extremely sad when something occurs that was certainly avoidable," he said.

The sheriff said there were no further injuries to the law enforcement personnel who went into the water to save Smith. He said Lt. Jim Ward had experienced problems in the water, and was transported to Weems, treated and released.

He said Deputy Rolf Gordon and Lt. Brad Segree also had gone in the water, as did first responder Dan Fortunas, but they returned to shore without problems.

"There were six- to eight-foot seas out there, horrific conditions. It's hard enough to swim on your own in that, let alone rescue somebody," the sheriff said. "Nobody in their right mind would go in but they did. I'm proud of their heroism, to keep people safe."

He said an investigation is ongoing as to whether the father had left children unattended, and said charges will be forthcoming in the event criminality can be established.

Smith said an incident occurred earlier in the day at Bob Sikes Cut, but no drowning took place. He said at that time it was determined that there were no consequences on the books for ignoring red flag warnings, and he said he plans to work to change that.

"We're trying to give consequences if they violate it," he said, "I am tired of these people going in the water and putting first responders and Good Samaritans at risk."