A volunteer firefighter is being remembered for his heroism after he lost his life trying to save a pair of tourists from the rough waters off the coast of St. George Island.
On the afternoon of Aug. 25, 56-year-old Brian Smith, who was a member of the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department, and other first responders attempted to save a man and a child from the Gulf of Mexico waters, but Brian was tragically pulled under and drowned. The swimmers were returned to the shore, but a deputy who aided in the rescue was hospitalized.
In the aftermath of the incident, Franklin County Sheriff A.J. “Tony” Smith paid tribute to the fallen firefighter in a Facebook video later that day. “We’re all heartbroken about the loss of life today from a first responder who heeded the call to go rescue someone,” he said.
Due to the passage of Hurricane Laura through the Gulf of Mexico, the water was extremely rough, which Smith described as “horrific conditions.” Lifeguards put up a double red flag, indicating that the waters were closed to the public because of “six- to eight-foot seas” and dangerous rip currents.
Despite the warnings, the Sheriff’s Office noted that deputies had had to remove many people swimming. In the case of Brian, “[h]e went in to rescue a man and a juvenile and he got swept up,” fellow firefighter Bud Hayes told The Tallahassee Democrat.
Emergency medical services quickly responded to the drowning, and Brian was taken to Weems Memorial Hospital in Apalachicola, Florida, where he was pronounced dead.
Recalling his persona, Hayes said: “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.”
Brian, who had served as a first responder since 2006, worked as a property manager at a township. The St. George Island Lighthouse and Museum has helped organize a memorial fund for the family, praising Smith’s actions to save “distressed swimmers.”
In the wake of losing her husband, Beth took to Facebook honoring Brian’s sacrifice and that of other first responders. “Today our loss was devastating and it is vibrating through our community,” she wrote, according to The Tallahassee Democrat. “Brian died today trying to help people. PLEASE just for a day or 2 be nice to each other, many people were affected today.”
For Sheriff Smith, the incident was not only tragic but also something that could be easily avoided. “A lot of people were put at risk today because someone decided to go into the water when they shouldn’t have,” the sheriff explained. Earlier in the day, there was another rescue at Bob Sikes Cut, a narrow passage between St. George Island and Cape St. George Island; however, no injuries were reported.
The sheriff noted that first responders, including Brian and police deputies, had shown extreme bravery. “It’s hard enough to swim on your own in that, let alone rescue somebody,” he said in his video post. “Nobody in their right mind would go in but they did. I’m proud of their heroism, to keep people safe.”
The sheriff asked for “thoughts and prayers” for Smith’s family and all the other first responders injured while trying to save thoughtless swimmers. He also reiterated the danger and selfishness of swimming in waters disturbed by a hurricane.
“We’re asking again, do not go in the water, stay out of the water,” Sheriff Smith implored.
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