JACKSONVILLE Fla. – The search continued Monday for a 52-year-old man who disappeared into the waters off Little Talbot Island over the weekend. The search was called off for the day just after 3:30 p.m. because changing conditions had made the search too difficult, officials said.
The missing man's family identified him as George Cooper. His stepdaughter, Sheree Wallace, said she, too, was swept out into the water Sunday night, but she was rescued minutes later.
Officials said the search for Cooper will resume Tuesday.
"The next thing I know, I'm saying, 'Please, God, please. It's not my time. I left my kids with my mom. It's not my time. I'm not ready,'" Wallace said.
Officials got the call that Cooper had been swept out just hours after the search for an 11-year-old boy last seen in the same area was called off.
Wallace said she and Cooper were just going into the water to wash off the sand and never imagined anything like this would happen. Wallace said she knows Cooper not only as her dad but also her best friend.
She said she will never forget the helpless feeling of being swept into the waters off Little Talbot Island with Cooper by he side, and she will never forget the words he said to her.
"The only thing I could hear him say was, 'Sheree, just calm down. Swim,'" Wallace said. "I was trying to follow what he was doing. But it seemed like I kept getting farther back."
Wallace said no matter how hard she fought the currents, she kept getting pushed farther out. Her view of the beach and her own family got smaller with each second.
"It was just so lonely out there," Wallace said. "I just couldn't see anyone. It just got -- we were just so far."
Within minutes, Wallace saw flashing lights and soon, three officers with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office were there to save her. She was 300 yards from shore, and she said all she could think about was her children at home -- and Cooper.
Her rescuers asked if someone was with her, and she told them her stepfather was behind her. But when they looked, there was nothing.
So the search for Cooper began just before 7 p.m. with several agencies on board. They searched through the night and into the morning using helicopters, boats and dive teams.
The search is now considered a recovery effort. On Monday, Cooper's family stood by waiting and praying, many of them still coming to terms with what happened. His loved ones want people to know more about who he was.
"He was a great guy and he was always there for us," said Daniya Wallace, Cooper's granddaughter.
"He was so wonderful. He was my best friend. If you saw me, you saw him. If you saw him, you saw me. He just came out here not the weekend before last. He just loved being around water. He just loved to be outside," Sheree Wallace said. "You will never think it will happen to you, but it happened to us. I lost my best friend yesterday."
Rescue crews said Little Talbot Island is one of the most dangerous places to swim because the ocean bottom drops off quickly and abruptly. There are signs posted warning people about this and to stay out of the water.
Sheree Wallace said she hopes going forward other people will pay attention to those signs or learn to stay in groups in the water.