Ryan Billingslea’s family will always remember him as a hero for what he did Sunday night on Lake Norman.
Billingslea, a 36-year-old from Charlotte, was on a 22-foot 1979 Sea Ray with six friends when winds blew the hat off the boat’s owner and operator at about 7 p.m., authorities said.
The man steered the boat back to the hat and then jumped in to retrieve it. The wind and waves caused the boat to drift away, Sgt. Barry Rowell of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said.
The man began to struggle and called for help, Rowell said, and the people on board tried to get a flotation device to him. When that failed, he said, Billingslea jumped in without a life jacket.
Billingslea, who played basketball at West Charlotte High School and Clinton College in Rock Hill, had been a strong swimmer since childhood, family members said. But Rowell said even strong swimmers can become disoriented and struggle in waves and a strong current.
“Ryan jumped in the water, and the current was so bad that both were having problems,” aunt Faye Philips, 63, said.
Friends on the boat could see the pair struggling. A woman on board jumped in with a flotation device, but Billingslea never resurfaced, Rowell said.
The boat’s owner caught hold of a life jacket and was pulled to safety by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police boat, Rowell said. The woman who jumped into the water was rescued by a passing boater, he said.
At 2:28 p.m. Monday, firefighters from the Denver, Charlotte and Cornelius departments using sonar on their boats found Billingslea 90 feet below the surface, close to where he’d gone under, Cornelius Fire Chief Jim Barbee said.
“He was trying to help somebody else, but that’s the way Ryan was,” Billingslea’s uncle, Leroy Johnson of Columbia, S.C., said as he and other relatives waited at Ramsey Creek Park in Cornelius for word on the recovery efforts Monday. “He’d help anybody.”
Firefighters searched for about five hours Sunday night and Monday near where Billingslea went under, off the end of the Belle Isle Drive peninsula near Channel Marker One. The channel at that point is heavily used by boaters getting from the southern portion of the lake to the larger areas up north. The area is close to the McGuire Nuclear Plant and the dam.
Chief Jim Barbee of Cornelius-Lemley Fire & Rescue said search efforts were hampered by strong currents caused by the opening of the dam.
The boat was returning to Blythe Landing Park in Huntersville when the man’s hat flew off. Authorities didn’t release the name of the boat’s owner and operator.
Rowell said alcohol was on the boat but played no role in the drowning, although he later said the investigation was continuing.
An autopsy will be performed, although drowning is the likely cause of Billingslea’s death, Rowell said.
The boat had the proper number of life jackets and a throwable lifesaving device, Rowell said.
Billinglslea’s death is the third drowning this summer on Lake Norman, all in the past 5 1/2 weeks.
Elisabeth Anna Burford, 36, of Lincolnton, died July 28 when swimming in a cove off Mitchell Lane. And Richard Terry Cocklin, 53, of Denver, drowned in a cove off Dick Wilson Road on Aug. 14. Both deaths were on the Lincoln County side of the lake.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission reported four deaths last year – a 53-year-old fisherman whose boat sank June 18, a 9-year-old boy killed June 20 as a result of trauma from a watercraft collision, a 31-year-old New York man who drowned while swimming Aug. 31, and a 32-year-old Charlotte man who drowned after falling off a charter boat Sept. 1.
On Monday afternoon, shortly before Billingslea’s body was found, Philips and two of Billingslea’s uncles remembered their nephew for his love of cooking and his close connection with family.
Philips said that after his parents died four years ago, Billingslea became increasingly passionate about cooking, often posting pictures of new concoctions on Facebook.
“Everyone would comment that he would cook these exotic meals,” Philips said.
Billingslea also “loved the water and loved to fish,” she said.
Billingslea, who owned Sweet Lawn Care, had recently bought a rig to become an independent trucker, Johnson said.
But more than anything, Philips and his uncles said, Billingslea loved his family. Philips remembered how he would often go on vacation with family members and was always eager to help a loved one in need.
“Family came first for him,” she said. “They’re having a hard time right now. He was at home watching TV and a friend just asked him to go on the water and then next thing, he was gone.”