Letting go was never an option for Tony Williamson
By Fran Thompson
A native of Eight Mile and a Saraland resident, 52-year-old Tony Williamson knows all about Gulf Coast hurricanes.
He was vacationing with his family in Orlando when he first started tracking Hurricane Sally as a tropical storm heading for Louisiana.
When he noticed the slow moving storm was veering eastward, he and his family decided to cut their vacation short so he could secure the 48-foot Ocean Yacht he has kept at The Perdido Key Oyster Bar Marina for three of the six years he has owned the boat.
Williamson arrived at the marina around 1 p.m. on Sept. 15 and decided to stay the night, as winds were already gusting and he did not want his vessel to break loose from its moorings and crash into another boat at the packed marina.
Winds continued to gust after sunset, but Williamson still felt secure when he checked in with his wife back in Saraland just after 1 a.m. the following morning.
In a matter of 20 minutes that all changed. The fierce waves that were crashing against the boat’s stern were now coming up over the stern. His bulge pump was not keeping pace, and it wasn’t even close.
The boat was going to sink in a matter of minutes, and it was breaking apart section by section and chunk by chunk. He even saw a a refrigerator from his galley bobbing in the surf below him.
Jumping blindly overboard into water flowing around him like level 5 rapids was not an option. He would be swept away.
He knew his boat was taller than the water was deep at the marina. At first, he thought he might be able to climb to the top of the boat and cling to the fly bridge and still be above water after it sank. But tht was before the boat disintegrated right before his eyes in Sally’s category 2 winds.
Visibility was minimal. Jumping blindly into the surf only to be swept out into the current was a poor choice.
But his sinking boat, which ended up breaking in four, was still tied to dock poles. He assumed the boardwalk, now below water, was also still there. He could not tell in the driving rain.
The key fob to his truck was still in his pocket, and he had the wherewithal to use it. The headlights on the Dodge, parked 35 yards away in the marina lot, soon clicked on. Using the illumination from those headlights as a guide, he was able to see a couple of his boat lines among the debris in the raging water.
When he says he then took a “leap of faith,’’ he means that literally. He had no idea if the boardwalk below the water line was still there.
God was looking out for him when he realized he still had his truck key fob in his pocket, which enabled him to see his boat lines in the dark, and there really wasn’t another option anyay. He jumped into the turbulence and grabbed one of the lines, pulling himself towards the dock pole in hopes that there would be a boardwalk to stand on.
Although the water was up to his chest, his feet landed on the boardwalk when he got there, and at that point, it seemed relatively stable.
He was standing on a submerged boardwalk clinging to a pole with water up to his chest while riding out a category 2 hurricane and its 110 MPH winds. There was debris floating and flying all around him. But he felt good. He could handle that.
The water continued to rise and soon it was over his head. He eventually climbed to the very top of the pole and continued to hang on as waves crashed over his head. The chaos he saw around him included watching his boat take its final plunge to the bottom of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Williamson is not exactly sure how many hours he clung to the pole. But letting go was not an option.
“I am not in horrible shape. But I don’t go to the gym every day,’’ said the 6’2’’, 190 lb. former high school football player. “It did cross my mind that I should be in better shape. But it was too late to worry about that.
“I never thought I was not going to be able to hang on. That wasn’t even an option,’’ Williamson added. “I can’t really explain it. I knew that turning loose meant I was going to die. I was worried about getting hit in the head with a flying object. But not hanging on was just not an option.
“I have talked to a lot of people since then who said they would have given up,’’ he added. “But I never thought about that because I knew I had a purpose.’’
During those harrowing hours, Williamson said he thought about his family, picturing their faces. He thought about scriptures that referenced spiritual storms. He remembers wishing that his faith in God would have been even stronger.
With the sun about to rise, the tide and the surge shifted. The wind velocity lessoned, and water began to flow out of the marina and into the Intracoastal Waterway.
He was able to lower himself from the pole and make his way to shore in front of the condos to the west of the marina.
He almost immediately encountered Debbie and Jerry LaCoste, who let him use their phone to call his wife, the boat’s (Crazy Carey) namesake.
The LaCostes’ phone had a Texas area code, but his wife knew for certain it was him calling to say he was OK when she answered the phone. “I called her at 6:03 a.m. She said when the phone rang, it never occurred to her it was anybody but me. She already knew in her mind that it was me calling to tell her I am fine.’’
Williamson wants it known that God was looking out for him, but he is the person who relied on inaccurate weather information and put himself in grave danger.
“It was nobody’s fault but mine,’’ he said. “Now I have to take something good out of this and hope that I can help somebody down the road.’’
Of course, he looks at life differently now. How could he not after surviving a direct hit from a category 2 hurricane while clinging to the top of a piling with projectiles flying and floating by him at incredible speeds. Any of those projectiles could have knocked him unconscious.
In the aftermath, he had trouble sleeping more than a couple hours at a time. It was almost too emotional to talk about the ordeal, even with family and close friends.
But as his body healed, it became clear that he could use his experience to speak to groups about nurturing their spirituality and relationship with God.
“I feel like this has helped put me in a better position spiritually. And this is my second chance. I am still here for a purpose and I don’t want to miss that purpose,’’ he said. “Maybe this experience will lead me in a direction where I can be of help to somebody dealing with a different type of storm.
“It’s hard to get mad at anything anymore because I am blessed to be here,’’ he added. “I don’t care about losing the boat. That doesn’t even come to mind. I can buy a new truck. That kind of stuff is just not very important.’’
But will he ever buy another boat?
“If I do it will be of the pontoon variety,’’ he said. “If the boat doesn’t have a trailer, I don’t really want it.’’
Pictured: Tony Williamson stands by the pole that he clung to throughout Hurricane Sally; Williamson’s totaled Dodge truck, which was parked about 35 yards from his boat.
at the marina.