‘Bill stories’ and emotional mailings: Baldwin County salutes MP who drowned while saving lives
Baldwin County MP who died Sunday of accidental drowning while attempting to save swimmer in Gulf of Mexico is remembered Saturday as a “hero”, a “warrior” and a man gave “150 percent “to his career in the public service. .
MP Bill Smith, 57, praised a funeral service in Robertsdale at the Baldwin County Coliseum which was filled with law enforcement officers and firefighters from the Alabama and Georgia departments. A crowd of friends and supporters joined in mourning along with Smith’s 32-year-old wife Samantha and their two sons.
The service included a mix of light-hearted “Bill stories” and deeply moving reflections on a man who was considered both a gruff and sane public servant and a benevolent “teddy bear”.
Prior to the service, rock music from AC / DC and Led Zeppelin played in the background during a visit as the huge contingent of police officers greeted them and mingled. After the ceremony, all stood darkly outside the venue during a 21-gun salute and the last call under dark skies that preceded a downpour as a funeral procession began through Robertsdale.
“We realized this week in Alabama and Georgia and beyond, in public safety, that everyone knew Bill,” said Gulf Shores Police Lt. Jason Woodruff. “Everyone had a Bill Smith story. But above all, Bill loved his family.
Smith has spent a career of approximately three decades in firefighting in departments in Alabama and Georgia and rose through the ranks to key leadership positions in suburban Atlanta. He then moved on to law enforcement, where he was first hired as a deputy in the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department in northern Alabama. He moved to Gulf Shores about seven years ago, joining the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department SWAT team and living in Gulf Shores.
His last posting placed him in March on a brand new beach patrol which he would help train in the sheriff’s office. Along with Deputy Sydney Wentworth, Smith was tasked with patrolling the unincorporated peninsula of Fort Morgan, a popular tourist destination along the Gulf Coast of Alabama.
At around 6 p.m. on June 6, Smith was the first to arrive at a distressed swimmer call near the Dunes condos. Two women struggled in the dangerous waves of the Gulf, along with a teenager, said investigative testimony.
Smith first approached one of the women who was wearing a life jacket, saw that she was okay, then turned her attention to the teenager. Around this time, Wentworth arrived and rescued the other woman who was struggling in the water.
Smith, reaching the teenager, deployed a portable flotation device he had on him, giving it to the teenager, according to Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack. Choppy Gulf waves rolled them both over. The teenager was able to rise to the surface and spotted Smith “floating above the water”. Smith was later pronounced dead at an emergency center in Gulf Shores. An autopsy report showed he died of an accidental drowning.
“He didn’t think he deserved to be recognized,” said the Gulf Shores Police Command Sgt. Nate Harris and a personal friend. “(He was working) for a cause and not for applause. He was ready to put everything on the line. “
Mack said Smith passed away taking the kind of action that was his trademark: responding selflessly to those in need of help.
“Either way Bill Smith could interfere in a situation, he would,” Mack said. “He was jumping over people to get involved in something. He put (the people) aside. It was Bill. That’s what he did every day. He showed it again on June 6. (Smith and Wentworth) found themselves in a dangerous situation to save the lives of other people. You know what? They did it. They saved lives that day.
The Sheriff’s Office parked Smith’s law enforcement van in Robertsdale to serve as a memorial last week. Mack reflected on a conversation he had at the memorial on Saturday. It was with a former high school classmate whose young grandson has autism and who memorably met Smith a few years ago.
“She said they were having issues with him so (she) called the sheriff’s office to see if they could handle the situation,” Mack said. “Who’s running besides Bill Smith.” She said Deputy Smith got out of the car and she (told me) that “I looked up and saw this big man and my grandson was afraid of the uniforms.” Bill was proud of his uniform. He looked sharp. So she (tells Smith) he’s autistic, he’s in trouble, and he’s scared of law enforcement. She said that Bill immediately changed his voice and the behavior of his body and connected with this young boy to the point where the boy finally let Bill hug him. He then wrote his cell phone number on his business card and said, “Call me if you need me.”
Mack said the story left a strong impression on him. He said he told the woman’s grandson, now 13, “Even though Bill isn’t with us here today, you’ll still be one of Bill’s boys.” “
Mack said the grandson smiled. Later, the sheriff said, as he walked to his car, he was struck by the thought that Smith “always makes a difference in someone’s life.”
Smith was also fondly remembered by those old friends he knew in northern Alabama, including the mayor of his hometown of Weaver.
Mayor Wayne Willis spoke of Smith’s tenure as the city’s fire chief by trying to make a campfire special.
“He spent four days roaming Calhoun County picking up pallets,” Willis said. “He had a three-story pallet tower. In the center were telephone poles. Three days before the event, Bill soaked it in kerosene and diesel fuel. The day (of the bonfire) comes and the cheerleaders around, and the group and soccer players are strutting around. It is a beautiful event and it is festive.
What no one expected was the weather, the mayor said. A strong wind had arisen around the time the fire was lit.
“That thing burst into fire and brimstone and blew embers into the air, and it’s raining now on the cheerleaders and the band,” Willis said. “People were running around and screaming and parents grabbed their kids. The firefighters come out and put it out. I look at Bill and give me a thumbs-up. I said, ‘Bill, what the hell were you thinking?’ I remember his response: ‘Now it’s a fire.’ “
Willis said, “It’s Bill. Just 150 percent.
Retired Lt. Col. Ron LaGrone, who volunteered to work with Smith years ago as a firefighter, said he remembered a skilled firefighter who bullied his bosses because of his aggressiveness.
“They didn’t know what he would have done next,” LaGrone said. “Bill didn’t just want to be all he could be; he wanted to be everyone he could be.
LaGrone said public safety agencies need more people like Smith and thanked law enforcement and firefighters in attendance.
“We respect you and know you are there for us,” said LaGrone. “If you pursue your vocation like Bill did, with your training and especially with your heart, I know he will smile at you just as he is smiling at us right now.”
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