A 27-year-old Jacksonville man who died Saturday after being pulled out of the ocean along Jacksonville Beach was dragged under by a strong current, his girlfriend told News4Jax.
Roberta Petrie said she and her boyfriend, Stephan Rodriguez, were in the water together Saturday near Sixth Avenue South in Jacksonville Beach during a beach trip with Petrie's two children.
She said Rodriguez was playing with her in waist-deep water and, the next second, he was gone.
"I was with him, and we got separated just out of arm's reach where I couldn't grab him, and then it pulled him out," Petrie said. "It was just something you see in movies and you don't believe it's real, but with him it was."
Jacksonville Beach police said they responded at 6:07 p.m. to report of a distressed swimmer.
Rodriguez's mom said he grew up around the water and was a very strong swimmer.
Nearby beachgoers tried to pull him to shore on surfboards, but by the time he got to the sand, he was in cardiac arrest. Rescuers performed CPR, but Rodriguez died at a hospital.
Rodriguez's family is hoping his tragedy will be an example to others that even the most confident swimmers can find themselves in distress without warning.
"Swim within hands' reach of a buddy. Use a vest, even if it's one you pull a cord. Use a vest because, if you get pulled out, you never know what that undertow is going to do, and if you get pulled out and you're wearing a vest, you can just lay back," Petrie said. "You don't have to fight the waves and maybe if he wouldn't have had to fight the waves, he wouldn't have been in cardiac arrest."
Experts say if you get caught in a rip current, do not try swimming against it because that won't get you out but will tire you out. Instead, swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the rip current and can safely swim back to shore.
Petrie said Rodriguez was originally from Levy County but was living in Jacksonville and was studying to be an electrician.
Petrie said the two met in elementary school, and Rodriguez was the love of her life.
"Two minutes before it happened, I wiped out trying to jump on a wave and fell into his arms. He hugged me and I heard his heart beating, and I was, like, this is perfect. This is never gonna end. And it did," Petrie said. "Don't ever let time pass you by. There's never gonna be enough."
A GoFundMe page has been set up for the family.
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