Air Force veteran surgeon, sports trainer killed in Utah canyon floods
Tampa Bay Times March 17, 2023
TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — A surgeon and athletic trainer who worked for a Tampa Bay orthopaedic medicine practice were identified as the two hikers who died after floodwaters surged through a narrow canyon in Utah last weekend.
Authorities on Thursday identified Dr. Jeffrey Watson and William “Bill” Romaniello as the two hikers whose bodies were recovered this week after they went missing when floodwaters tore through Buckskin Gulch, a slot canyon in southern Utah that is popular with hikers.
Both men worked for the Orthopaedic Medical Group of Tampa Bay, which has offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties.
Watson was an orthopaedic surgeon and partner at the practice, according to its website. He was also a co-owner of the Tampa Sports Academy, which offers personal training, coaching and other services. And he was chief executive officer for Los Canna Global, a company that provides consulting and other services for the cannabis industry, his LinkedIn profile shows.
Romaniello was an athletic trainer for Orthopaedic Medical Group of Tampa Bay and served as the practice’s director of business development and sports medicine. He was also the head athletic trainer at Jesuit High School.
A third hiker with them who was rescued and survived, Ed Smith, is chief clinical officer for the practice.
“Tragedy has hit the practice, and it is with profound sadness that we share the loss of Dr. Jeffrey Watson and William Romaniello, ATC, two pillars of the practice that leave an incredible legacy and monumental void in the hearts of everyone that knew them,” according to a brief statement posted on the practice’s Facebook page on Thursday.
The statement asked for privacy for the men’s families. A person who answered the phone at the practice on Friday said representatives had no additional comment.
The Kane County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday released the names of the three men and in a news released provided more details about the search and rescue efforts.
The men were planning to hike from Wire’s Pass to Lee’s Ferry, a challenging 45-mile trek through rugged canyon land. The route would take them through Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in North America. They started Friday and were planning to arrive in Lee’s Ferry on Sunday.
When the men had not contacted their families by Monday morning, one of their wives reported them overdue. Authorities launched a search, dispatching at least two helicopters to the area.
About 5 p.m. Monday, a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter spotted a person with an infrared camera. A crew member lowered into the canyon confirmed the man was Smith. He was “extremely cold and weak,” the news release said.
Videos released by the Utah Department of Public Safety show the helicopter crew spotting Smith, who was lying on his back on the canyon floor and waving his arms, and then hoisting him into the chopper. He was taken to a hospital for treatment.
Smith told authorities that the group was hit by a flash flood on Saturday morning and carried downstream. Smith said he and Watson were able to free themselves from the floodwaters and regroup. They searched for Romaniello but were unable to find him so they continued downstream to get help.
Watson had a leg injury and was unable to continue.
“After getting Jeff situated, Ed continued to look for help,” the news release said.
Kane County Search and Rescue crews who entered Buckskin Gulch at the Middle Route Trail access area found Romaniello’s body in the canyon Monday night and continued to search for Watson until early Tuesday morning. The teams faced neck-deep frigid pools of water and waist-deep quicksand, according to the news release.
Later on Tuesday, authorities received a distress call from another group of hikers. While looking for those hikers, crews encountered a person who said he’d passed a dead body on Monday and provided some information on the location. Crews were unable to find the body the next day and heavy rains in the area delayed delayed search efforts.
Later Wednesday, searchers found Watson’s body about three miles into Arizona.
“Our hearts pour out to the Romaniello and Watson families for their loss,” the sheriff’s office news release said. “Both men were pillars in their community and a huge loss to the healthcare field where they worked.”
Romaniello, a Connecticut native, graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in Sports Science in 1991, according to the Orthopaedic Medical Group of Tampa Bay’s web site. He spent his career as a trainer, educator and rehabilitator. He joined the Medical Group in 2015 and built a sports medicine program that treats patients at local sporting events. He became the head athletic trainer of Jesuit High in 2017, the school’s website shows.
Outside of work, Romaniello enjoyed spending time with his family, watching sports and playing golf, his profile said. He was a father of three, Jesuit’s website said.
“Bill was dedicated to his passion in life which was helping others throughout his career in the athletic training field,” a GoFundMe page raising money for Romaniello’s funeral said.
The GoFundMe described him as a “loved father, son brother and ‘pop-pop.’”
”He always stood for doing what’s right, hard work, family first, and helping others without them asking for it,” Romaniello’s stepson Joshua Clark said in a public Facebook post.
Watson was a top graduate from his squadron at the United States Air Force Academy and served six years in the Air Force, according to various online biographies. After completing his surgical training, he was assigned to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where he served as the chief of orthopaedics. He left the Air Force in 2014.
Watson specialized in sports-related injuries in young and adult patients, including members of the U.S. military and youth and collegiate athletes, his Tampa Bay Sports Academy profile says.
Selina Pierce Patterson was one of Watson’s patients who posted on social media praising him and mourning his death. Patterson’s post said Watson replaced her knee last year and before that operated on her rotator cuff.
“My heart is broken,” Patterson’s post said. “He was outstanding at his profession and was a sweetheart at bedside disposition.”
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Michaela Mulligan contributed to this report.
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