News Column

Natalie Wood Could Have Been Saved, Rescue Ship Captain Says

Nov. 21, 2011

Mark Grossi

Natalie Wood

On Thanksgiving weekend 30 years ago, Roger Smith pulled the lifeless body of actress Natalie Wood from the chilly water off the Southern California coast.

She had not been dead for very long because there was no rigor mortis, he said. If her actor-husband Robert Wagner had called for his help hours sooner, Smith could have saved her life, he said in an interview Sunday.

Smith, 67, was captain of the rescue ship that searched for Wood. He has been retired in Oakhurst since the late 1990s.

He said he vividly remembers the search for the famed actress who tragically drowned near Santa Catalina Island.

Authorities are reviewing the accidental death, saying they had received new information and heard from witnesses who were not included in the original investigation. Investigators have not revealed the identity of the witnesses.

Smith said he always has felt badly about Wood's death. He still wonders why Wagner waited to call for expert help after she disappeared from a yacht.

"I live with this feeling that we could have saved her," Smith said. "I think there was neglect on his part."

Smith appeared briefly Saturday on the CBS show "48 Hours," which explored Wood's drowning and the reopening of the investigation.

Known for her roles in such movie classics as "West Side Story" and "Rebel Without a Cause," Wood was considered royalty in Hollywood. Her death stunned the celebrity world.

Authorities said Wood possibly was trying to secure a small boat to the side of the yacht and fell overboard. The yacht captain searched the area when her disappearance was discovered, authorities reported at the time.

At least two hours went by before Smith and others were called, Smith said.

At the time, he was a Los Angeles County lifeguard-paramedic and captain of the rescue ship that searched for the actress.

Smith said he found nothing in the water around the yacht and began expanding his search with the help of a Sheriff's Department helicopter. The helicopter searchers spotted something in the distance near Blue Cavern Point, less than a mile away.

He said he found her body floating in the water, clothed in a down jacket and burgundy-colored nightgown.

Smith said he and a sheriff's deputy brought the body to shore, and inspected it briefly for wounds. He said they found none.

Smith said he later spoke to an expert who said she probably could have survived in the water for at least three hours.

Wood reportedly could not swim, but she might have held onto the small boat until hypothermia set in, Smith said.

"I took her rings off so they could be returned to Robert Wagner," he said. "Her fingers were very pliable. There was no rigor mortis, like I'd seen in other drownings. She hadn't been dead long. I closed her eyes and covered her."

Source: (c)2011 The Fresno Bee

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