LOS ANGELES>> The lifeguard captain who helped pull Natalie Wood's body from the water nearly 30 years ago said he believes the actress could have been saved had officials begun a search for her earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.
Former Los Angeles County supervising rescue boat captain Roger Smith told the Times (http://lat.ms/rUJ3VZ) he was alerted that Wood was missing at 5:11 a.m. on Nov. 29, 1981. That was some four hours after she went missing from a yacht off Santa Catalina Island during a Thanksgiving weekend trip with her husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken. A lifeguard boat equipped with all the gear needed to conduct a search had been moored about 100 feet away from the yacht the whole time, he said.
"Based on the condition of her body when we pulled her from the water, I believe she survived for some time in the water and was blown out to sea. She probably cried for help for hours," Smith said in an interview. "I've always believed she could have been saved. Her fingers were still pliable when she was pulled from the water, suggesting she had not been dead for hours."
The Sheriff's Department reopened the death investigation last week, saying the decision was prompted by new information detectives received about the case.
The original investigation concluded that Wood accidentally drowned when she fell into the water while tying up a loose dinghy. But exactly how long she was in the water remains a mystery.
Smith told the Times he hoped the reopening of the investigation will answer lingering questions about why lifeguards were not alerted to Wood's disappearance sooner.
The evening before the drowning, Wood, Wagner and Walken, who was then Wood's co-star in the film "Brainstorm." had dinner at Doug's Harbor Reef restaurant on the island. Later, authorities said they returned to the yacht and had drinks and Wagner and Walken got into an argument.
Later Walken went to bed, according to Wagner, who, after staying up with boat captain Dennis Davern for a while, went looking for his wife and couldn't find her on board. He then noticed that a dinghy attached to the boat — and his wife — were gone.
According to Smith, Wagner told him that Sunday morning that he had spent several hours looking for Wood and had contacted the operator of the small harbor. But Smith said he was perplexed over why it took so long to contact the lifeguards, who could have launched a full search for Wood.
Sheriff's officials have stressed that Wagner is not a suspect in Wood's death. Wagner released a statement last week saying he welcomed the new investigation into the case.