"If William Nichols wasn’t a perfect example of a real hero, nobody is."
SANDESTIN — In a last act of service, the Mississippi sheriff’s deputy who lost his life Wednesday in the surf off of the Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort saved the life of his own 10-year-old son.
His son was one of "easily hundreds, if not thousands" of lives that 33-year-old Deputy William K. Nichols saved in his years of work with the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department’s Search and Rescue division, according to DeSoto County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Smith.
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Nichols, a patrol deputy who volunteered for years with the department’s search and rescue (SAR) division, eventually became head of the operation, a job he’d held for seven years. He initially joined the sheriff’s department in 2010 as a patrol deputy.
The SAR patch on the unit’s uniforms carries a simple but profound motto — "That Others May Live" — that was being seen Thursday as a fitting epitaph to Nichols’ life of service.
Nichols spent his SAR career rescuing people from the Mississippi River, which borders the northern Mississippi county, and from the 550-square-mile county’s two Army Corps of Engineers lakes. He also saved people from mishaps on land, and found people who had gotten lost, Smith recalled Thursday..
"Shock," was Smith’s one word answer when asked about the sheriff’s department’s reaction to news of Nichols’ death. In addition to his son, Nichols is survived by a wife and a teenage daughter.
Nichols was, Smith said, "a highly respected individual" in DeSoto County. Nichols’ search and rescue expertise will be missed, and not easily replaced, Smith added.
Search and rescue work had attracted Nichols at a young age, Smith said, and was a defining part of his personality.
"He’s somebody that was born into this," Smith said.
That’s quite literally true. Nichols’ father had served as a previous head of the county’s search and rescue division, and Nichols, beginning as an 11-year-old boy, volunteered to work alongside his father.
"That’s what he wanted," Smith said.
And, as almost goes without saying, he got very good at the work..
"He was something else," Tish Clark, public information officer for the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department, said in a breaking voice Thursday morning.
"If William Nichols wasn’t a perfect example of a real hero, nobody is," Clark said, choking back her emotions.
In a news release she prepared to announce Nichols’ death — it took her hours to write, she said — Clark called him "the embodiment of a true hero" and wrote that "words to describe Director Nichols would be humble, passionate, kind, and he always put others before himself."
Red flags were flying Wednesday across southern Walton County beaches, indicating a high hazard for rough surf and rip currents associated with a tropical weather pattern making its way through the Gulf of Mexico.
Wednesday evening, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office responded to the water rescue call at the Sandestin resort. Nichols was pulled from the water by South Walton Fire Department personnel after saving his young son, who was able to make it back to shore after Nichols went in after him and rescued him from a rip current.
Nichols, though, was pulled back out after rescuing his son. He was brought back into shore, where CPR was administered. He was then transported to the nearby Ascension Sacred Heart on the Emerald Coast Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to the Walton County Sheriff’s Office.
As in DeSoto County, the loss of Nichols was felt deeply by Walton County Sheriff’s Office personnel, whom Smith said have done "a phenomenal job" in assisting Nichols’ family in the hours since his death.
Smith went on to praise the Walton County Sheriff’s Office as "a highly professional organization."
In a Facebook post Wednesday, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office marked Nichols’ passing with some routinely used, but no less moving, words used to mourn the death of a law-enforcement officer.
"Rest In Peace, brother. We have the watch," the post read.
Both Smith and Clark said that Nichols knew exactly what he was getting into when he went into the surf to save his son. He had conducted a number of swift-water rescues in the Mississippi River, Smith said.
"This is what he did for a living," Clark said. "If William Nichols couldn’t survive, nobody could have survived."