The late Tommie Woodward.
Buzzfeed reports that, just because Tommie Woodward ignored warnings and jumped into the bayou at 2 A.M., winding up killed by an alligator, his grieving family feels he should not have been made into a Darwin Awards national joke.
On the night of July 2, 2015, Tommie Woodward was doing what Tommie did on Thursday nights â€” shooting pool, playing shuffleboard, drinking beer, having a good time at Burkartâ€™s Marina, a beer and burger joint in Orange, Texas. Sometime around 2 a.m. he decided to go for a swim in the murky waters of Adams Bayou.
Michelle Wright, the bartender on duty, became concerned upon hearing Tommieâ€™s plans. A few weeks earlier, the barâ€™s owner, Allen Burkart, spotted an exceptionally large alligator patrolling the bayou. He immediately erected a â€œNo Swimmingâ€ sign, which was disregarded. The people of Orange frequently swam with the reptiles, and even nicknamed two of them Cheeto and Marshmallow. Wright pleaded with Tommie, but he was stubborn, never backed down from anyone or anything. He was going swimming. Wright returned to her bartending duties.
Tommie removed his shirt and billfold and, joined by his companion Victoria LeBlanc, tiptoed toward the water. At this point LeBlanc saw a big gator â€” maybe the same animal Burkart had encountered â€” emerge from beneath the dock. She alerted Tommie to its presence, who shouted back, â€œFuck that gator!â€ and plunged into the bayou.
Tommie was near a small island across the swamp when the gator got his arm. When LeBlanc jumped into the water to save him, he yelled for her to return to land. She obliged, then frantically ran inside for help. After dialing 911, Wright grabbed a flashlight, killed the lights to reduce the glare, and scanned the water for him. After five minutes or so â€” sheâ€™s unsure â€” Wright found him facedown near the pier. The gator quickly pulled Tommie under again. He resurfaced about 20 yards downstream, before disappearing into the darkness.
Two hours later Tommieâ€™s body was found with the left arm missing from the elbow down. His cause of death was drowning.
Tommie Woodward was the first person to die from an alligator attack in Texas since 1836. Shortly after the start of the Runaway Scrape, the mass evacuation of Texans fleeing Santa Annaâ€™s army during the Texas Revolution, an alligator killed a man identified as Mr. King in a bayou near the present-day Harris County border. Mr. King was leading his horses across water when an alligator thumped him with its tail and dragged him under. Luckily for Mr. King â€” and his friends and family â€” his death occurred before the advent of television and social media.
News of Tommie Woodwardâ€™s death went viral with articles on, among other places, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, Fox News, and Gawker; the Associated Press picked up the story; it led the local TV news, of course. The local Beaumont Enterprise published a cautionary op-ed. The comment sections were busy and typically unsympathetic. The particulars â€” an animal attack, his famous last words, according to the police report â€” provided irresistible content.
Some outlets used an image from Tommieâ€™s Facebook page of him chugging a Miller High Life while wearing a T-shirt that reads â€œClassy Motherfuckerâ€; a news anchor for KFDM, the CBS affiliate in nearby Beaumont, breathlessly noted â€œthe hundreds and thousands of pageviews and hundreds of commentsâ€ that the story generated on its website. Another circulated photo portrayed Tommie as the epitome of dudedom: grungy reddish-blonde chin strap beard, middle finger up, wearing a goofy cowboy hat, wraparound Guy Fieri shades, and a â€œThis Guy Needs a Beerâ€ shirt. On Facebook, strangers littered Tommie’s wall with comments like â€œlol rip dumbassâ€ and â€œWhat. A. Dumb. Fuck.â€ A controversial hunt for the killer gator ensued, which only compounded the attention.
Tommieâ€™s friends and family refuse to allow his final actions define the 28 years that preceded it. He loved Van Halen, Marilyn Monroe, and Ken Griffey Jr. He was good with his hands. He enjoyed assembling computers, building sandcastles with his nephew, fishing, swimming, camping, and grilling. He had an adoring big sister, a mom, a best friend, and an identical twin brother, Brian, all left to wrestle not just with grief over a freak tragedy, but also the aftermath of public humiliation. â€œI was severely pissed off at a lot of people that Iâ€™ve never met before,â€ his sister, Tabatha, says. â€œI was mad at everybody.â€