Volunteer firefighter drowns, tried to save swimmers in Florida Panhandle

A volunteer firefighter drowned Tuesday after trying to save a man and child who were struggling in the rough waters off the Florida Panhandle, authorities said.

Brian Smith, 56, was a member of the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department, the Tallahassee Democrat reported. He joined the fire department in 2006, and worked as a property manager at 300 Ocean Mile, a townhouse community.

He and several other first responders went into Gulf of Mexico waters to save the swimmers, but Smith was pulled under, according to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. The swimmers were returned safely to shore, but a deputy who assisted in the rescue was also hospitalized, officials said.

Double red flags had been flying on the beach Tuesday as Hurricane Laura strengthened hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the south in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sheriff A.J. “Tony” Smith said in a Facebook video that no one should have been going in the water and that deputies were patrolling the beach and ordering people out of the water.

“We’re all heartbroken about the loss of life today from a first responder who heeded the call to go rescue someone,” he said. “Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers (in this) difficult time.”

While the outer edges of the storm may have affected the waves off Florida, officials said they didn’t consider Brian Smith’s death hurricane-related.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Christy Thompson said double red flags can happen without hurricane winds, and Smith’s death was caused by people not following the flag warnings.

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

In a Facebook post, Brian's wife thanked all first responders who went "above and beyond" to save her husband.

"Brian died today trying to help people. PLEASE just for a day or 2 be nice to each other, many people were affected today," she said. “Check on your neighbors, check on and thank the volunteers at the Fire Department and Sheriff’s officers. Today our loss was devastating and it is vibrating through our community."

St. George Island is located about 70 miles southwest of Tallahassee.

The Associated Press contributed to this report