LITCHFIELD BEACH — Rain peppered the Waccamaw River and thunder shook the sky as six people piled into a 15-foot boat Wednesday night and set off through the darkness to make a 300-yard passage to their homes on rustic Sandy Island.
Just 15 feet from the shore, their journey came to a sudden and horrific end as the fiberglass boat took on water and capsized, throwing the passengers into the cold, inky water. No one on board could swim, and none wore life jackets, authorities said.
A mother and daughter went to their deaths in the river, as did an 18-year-old high school student. The accident also left a baby boy clinging to life at Medical University Hospital in Charleston.
Of those on board, only the boat's operator, Tiffany Tucker, and her 5-year-old daughter made it safely to shore. Tucker called 911 from her cell phone, but help arrived too late for some.
Georgetown County authorities called the incident the deadliest local boating accident in recent memory, and grief shuddered through the tight-knit enclave on Sandy Island, a rural community accessible only by boat.
"Morale is very low on the island today," resident and relative Samuel Pyatt said. "It's a very small community. It's a sad day."
When the boat overturned around 9:45 p.m., Pyatt and his brother, Charles Pyatt, rushed to the riverbanks to help rescue survivors. Charles Pyatt found a baby boy, a month shy of his first birthday, floating on a boat seat in the river and took the child to the mainland for medical attention.
By the time the infant arrived at the hospital, his body temperature hung in the mid-80s, Georgetown County Coroner Kenneth Johnson said. The boy, identified by a relative as Zyair Smalls, was listed in critical condition Thursday. His grandfather, Robert Smalls, said it will likely be a couple of days before doctors can assess the extent of his injuries.
Divers pulled the baby's mother, 19-year-old Shaquatia Robinson, from the river shortly before midnight Wednesday and rushed her to an area hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Preliminary autopsy results indicated she drowned, Johnson said.
Rescuers found the body of Robinson's mother, 47-year-old Lou Ann Robinson, Thursday morning.
Aided by planes, helicopters, boats and divers, rescuers continued to search throughout the day for 18-year-old Rishard Pyatt, a cousin of the two victims.
Students and faculty at Waccamaw High School, where Pyatt attended school and played basketball, held out hope searchers would find him alive. At 5:30 p.m., however, divers from the state Department of Natural Resources finally recovered the teen's body from the river's waters, according to the Coast Guard.
Weather reports show wind was picking up and a storm moving in as the boat approached the island Wednesday. But Georgetown County Sheriff A. Lane Cribb said it is too early to say if the onset of bad weather played a role in the accident.
"It might have been the weather. A bigger boat passing them might have caused it. We just don't know right now," he said.
The accident struck a deep chord on Sandy Island, a 12,000-acre island between the Waccamaw and Great Pee Dee rivers. More than 9,000 pristine acres are managed as a wildlife preserve. The island is also home to an enclave of about 20 families, with a total population of less than 150 people. Many residents are descendants of slaves who worked nearby rice plantations before the Civil War, and the community remains steeped in Gullah culture. "It's really one of the last bastions of the Gullah heritage," said Suesan Dolan, who works at a nearby marina on the mainland.
Dolan said the island dwellers live simply, with just a single general store to serve their needs. They come to the mainland to work and stock up on supplies, and pontoon boats ferry their children back and forth to schools each day.
The passengers in Wednesday's accident were returning to the island after boarding at a landing near Litchfield Beach, an upscale coastal resort community of golf courses, condominiums and restaurants about 70 miles northeast of Charleston.
Smalls, the injured infant's grandfather, said he hopes residents will reconsider the need for a bridge after this deadly accident.
Residents fought attempts to build a bridge from mainland in the 1990s, arguing that it would open Sandy Island to development. They said they preferred to go back and forth by boat. Dolan said most people in the area still feel the same way.
"If you build a bridge, people will come," she said. "I think people here are pretty content to keep it as it is."