Drowning could not have been avoided, Sullivan's Island Fire Chief says

  • Wednesday, May 29, 2013

According to multiple reports, the Charleston County Coroner's Office identified the teen boy who died Tuesday afternoon as 17-year-old James Williamson of North Charleston. A call to confirm was not immediately returned by the Coroner's Office. STAFF PHOTO BY TYLER HEFFERNAN

Cigarettes are more often associated with death. But, for one teenager at Sullivan's Island Tuesday afternoon, taking a smoke break saved his life.

Sullivan's Island Fire and Rescue Department Chief Anthony Stith said he received an advisory Tuesday at 3:52 p.m. coming from a boy who was with a group of three others near Breach Inlet but could not find them. Stith was one of the first responders.

“We got to the beach within two minutes and got up with the boy,” Stith said. “He said they were up to chest-deep water. He got out of the water to smoke a cigarette but his things were about a quarter mile away, so he was out of the water for about 30 minutes. He came back and didn't see anybody.”

Stith said the typical rescue procedure is for jet skis to deploy when dealing with a search area riddled with sand bars like Breach Inlet. Stith said they took the boy with them in a fire department truck and rode down the beach hoping to see the rest of the group farther down the island towards Isle of Palms. He asked bystanders if they had seen any boys in the water, including a paddleboarder who had been in the water for about an hour. Stith said no one had seen the boys.

The paddleboarder went back out to help the search. Stith requested as many resources as possible, including the Coast Guard, Isle of Palms officials, a helicopter, calling for help on the harbor channel and local boats.

At 4:40 p.m., the paddleboarder starting waving his paddle in the air, signaling Stith and his crew. The paddleboarder put one of the boys – who was conscious – on his board. A jet ski picked him up and took him to be treated by EMS.

According to Stith, he said either the paddleboarder or the rescued boy said they heard someone yelling. Six minutes later, a second boy was recovered by a jet ski by Isle of Palms. The on-site medic unit treated both boys. Stith described their conditions as “exhausted. They had been in the water for over an hour.”

The helicopter spotted the third boy in the water, Stith said, at 5:04 p.m. Medical teams tried performing CPR but he was later pronounced dead. All three were transported to East Cooper Medical Center.

Breach Inlet has signs prohibiting swimming, but Stith said they weren't doing anything wrong. “Where they were, you can swim. The Breach Inlet ban is only about 1,000 feet on each side of the bridge. I think what happened to these boys is it was low tide and there are three sand bars,” he said, adding that the water conditions were not rough. “They were standing chest deep. They just kind of stepped off the sand bar.

“They were treading water for at least an hour. It's really amazing that two of them survived. One boy said he floated on his back for a while. That's why we couldn't see him from the beach.”

No one drowned on Sullivan's Island last year, he added. One of the sand bars is so large that it runs from Breach Inlet to the area of water near the town's fire station.

Naturally, after any tragedy, people ask if the circumstances could have been avoided. This could not have prevented, Stith said. “We have plenty of signs (warning of water conditions). There are five. It's just an accident,” he said. “I don't think it's anybody's fault. These are 17 and 18 year olds that just graduated or were about to graduate.”

Stith said there was no evidence of alcohol use. Sullivan's Island Fire Department used to receive numerous emergency advisories from Breach Inlet years ago, but said that number had dwindled. Three years ago, during the month of April and May, Stith said they received “30 or 40 calls.”

“I tell people that sand bars are like living creatures,” he said. “They're different every day.”

This past Saturday, a paddleboarder who was exhausted and caught in a current requested assistance getting back to shore, but that was the only emergency call before Tuesday afternoon that the fire department had received this year, Stith said. The paddleboarder was located and in good condition.

According to multiple reports, the Charleston County Coroner's Office identified the teen boy who died as 17-year-old James Williamson of North Charleston. A call to confirm was not immediately returned by the Coroner's Office.

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