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Man drowns swimming the Smith

Family members upset with how the rescue effort unfolded 

The family of a 32-year-old Crescent City man who drowned on the Smith River on Monday say they are unhappy with the rescue attempt.

William McDonald and his family, including his children, were swimming in the Peacock Bar swimming hole between Tan Oak Drive on the north bank and Walker Road on the south bank. McDonald had been swimming from one side of the river to the other when his family saw him struggling, according to his brother, Chris Beck.

“When we pulled him out of the water he was blue in the face and bloated,” Beck said. “We (started) CPR. We were doing CPR for about five minutes before Department of Corrections came.”

Beck said he pulled his brother out of the river on the Walker Road side and had been performing CPR when a crew of Alder Conservation Camp inmates arrived on the opposite side. Beck and McDonald’s wife, Teresa Beals-McDonald, shouted for help, but instead of wading into the river, the fire captain in charge told Beck to place the victim on an inflatable raft and ferry him over to their side of the river.

Beck said he and other family members were in the middle of the river, trying to keep McDonald’s head out of the water, when a park ranger arrived on scene at the Walker Road side with paramedics on his heels. The captain of the inmates then told Beck to turn around and bring McDonald to the park ranger.

“I think we should have gotten a better response,” Beck said. “They had the right equipment and it was shallow. I feel we got cheated on assistance.”

The crew from Alder Camp, which included a fire captain and 14-15 inmates, was clearing vegetation in the area near State Route 197 when rescue workers were dispatched at about 3:15 p.m., said Camp Chief Hugh Scanlon. The captain, a trained paramedic, offered his assistance since he was in the area, but when the crew arrived on the Tan Oak side of the river, all the activity was happening on the opposite side, according to Scanlon. 

Because he didn’t have the right protective gear, the captain couldn’t enter the river to get to the victim, and he couldn’t leave his crew of inmates, Scanlon said.

“His options are he either needs to have the victim come over to his side so they can do something, or he can come back out and drive to the Walker Road side, which is probably 15 to 20 minutes travel time,” Scanlon said. “They tried to put the victim in a raft to bring him over, but at that point a park ranger showed up on the Walker Road side and then apparently everything got turned around back over to the Walker Road side. Walker Road was where CPR was going on.”

Scanlon added that getting to the river from Tan Oak Drive was already a tight fit for the inmate bus. 

“He can’t independently walk away from those guys,” he said, referring to the fire captain.

Paramedics with the Smith River Volunteer Fire Department loaded McDonald onto an ambulance and were able to get his pulse started, but it stopped when they got to the hospital where he was pronounced dead, according to Smith River Fire Chief Glen Hill.

When the call initially came in, rescue workers were called to the Tan Oak side of the river, Hill said. The first fire crew to arrive on scene arrived at Tan Oak, but was told the drowning occurred on the Walker Road side so the other crews went straight there, he said.

“(McDonald) had tried to swim across the river from the Tan Oak side to the Walker Road side and died on that side,” Hill said. “That’s why dispatch was confused. They did what they were told.”

Del Norte Ambulance, Del Norte Search and Rescue and Calfire also responded to the scene, Hill said.

McDonald was the father of two boys and two girls and also had a stepson, Beck said.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it  

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