PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. – Two men said they attempted to save UF Health Jacksonville CEO Dr. Leon Haley Jr. after a personal watercraft accident over the weekend in South Florida.
Tim Palmer and Keith Cojocar told News4Jax on Monday that they were fishing on a jetty near the Palm Beach Inlet on Saturday when they witnessed the accident.
“I saw Dr. Haley out of control on his jet ski a little bit,” Palmer said. “Might have been a wake from a boat.”
“My friend Keith yelled for me and said, ‘I need help,’” Cojocar said. “And I turned around and there was a jet ski crashing onto the rocks, which caught me off guard pretty hard when I saw it.”
ONLY ON NEWS4JAX: I spoke w/ 2 men who say they jumped into the water to try and save UF Health CEO, Dr. Leon Haley after a watercraft accident in Palm Beach Co. They didn’t know who he was at the time, but prayed as they kept his head above water. @wjxt4 https://t.co/QGKiMtiTLg pic.twitter.com/cTQDSi8vL7— Corley Peel (@WJXT_CorleyPeel) July 27, 2021
Another man shared with News4Jax a photo of the personal watercraft on the jetty. Palmer and Cojocar said the Yamaha WaveRunner barrel-rolled on top of the rocks. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Haley was thrown off the personal watercraft and was found in the water wearing a life jacket.
Palmer and Cojocar said the accident happened in a split second, but without hesitation, they jumped into the water to try to save Haley. They said Haley’s loved ones -- a woman and young boy -- were on a different watercraft.
“We were just trying to hold his head out of the water, and the current was really going out, really strong,” Palmer said.
At the time, the men didn’t realize Haley was a man who has been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 in Jacksonville, as well as a father of three, but they said they prayed as they held him until first responders arrived.
“We didn’t know his name, but we tried to pray for the man,” Cojocar said.
FWC said Haley, 56, was taken to a hospital in West Palm Beach, where he died.
Palmer and Cojocar said they will never forget Haley.
“I think he’s a great man and all you can do is honor him,” Cojocar said. “And I pray for their family.”
The exact cause of the accident is still under investigation, according to FWC.
The Coast Guard told News4Jax that the conditions were calm and safe on Saturday.