Pierce County, Wash. - The Pierce County Sheriff's Department has identified a man missing after he went inner tubing with friends on the Puyallup River Monday night as Austin Smith, 25, of South Hill. Sheriff's deputies and East Pierce firefighters spent most of Monday night hunting for Smith, who disappeared while floating the Puyallup River on an inner tube near Sumner.
Smith went into the river around 6 p.m. Monday with a cousin and a friend, but when they got out downstream shortly before 8 p.m., he was nowhere to be found. "They realized their friend was no longer with them," said Lt. Cindy Fajardo, who heads the county's search and rescue team. "The last place they had seen him was about a mile up from this location."
Smith's cousin and his friend said they were not up for an on-camera interview Tuesday morning, but told KIRO 7 they'd hunted for hours themselves, before calling 911 after 11 p.m., "because they didn't want it to be a false alarm."
Pierce County Sheriff's Deputy J. Sousley told KIRO 7 he was told the man "possibly could have been high" on Coricidin when he went in the water, though the cousin and friend said they did not know about that. Asked about the possibility, Fajardo said she could not comment on it at this time. Sousley said none of the three had been wearing life jackets on the trip. He also told us the darkness, and the fast cold water of the river, limited what searchers could do overnight. He said they were planning to be out looking again, on the ground and with an airplane, sometime after 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The search for Smith that resumed Tuesday morning was called off several hours later because conditions in the river were too dangerous, even for rescuers. "The water is very, very cold, and as you can see the visibility is nearly zero," said Fajardo. The Puyallup River has risen in recent days because of high temperatures that are melting snow and ice in the Cascade Mountains. The runoff is also bringing mud along with it, making it impossible for rescuers to see even an inch or two into the water.
People walking along a trail near the search scene told KIRO 7 they thought the river looked too dangerous for an evening of inner tubing. "When I see it this high I just kind of stay away," said Adam Bailey, who said he frequently fishes along the banks of the Puyallup. Monica Cotton also expressed surprise, calling Smith's disappearance tragic. "I don't know why he would go out there tubing," said Cotton. "It doesn't look safe to me."