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Drowning victim loved the sea and the dog he tried to save

LARGO — Sam Rizkallah and his four-footed first mate enjoyed the most active kind of bond. Man and dog were more than companions; they were best friends.

On Tuesday that bond cost Rizkallah, 58, his life.

You can't overstate the joy that the self-employed laundry operator took in piloting his 27-foot boat on the shimmering waters of the Gulf of Mexico on weekends, Oliver, his 4-year-old boxer, sniffing the breeze and the saltwater.

The buddies didn't even fish. A successful day was just being out there.

On Tuesday, a great day meant stopping at the Three Rooker sandbar, a favorite romping spot between Honeymoon Island and Anclote Key. In the boat with him were his niece, Carol; her husband, Todd Cochran; Carol and Todd's two children; and Abe, Sam's older brother.

It was hot, but the water cooled them. About 2 p.m., Rizkallah and Cochran stood in chest-deep water trying to anchor the bow, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

That's when Oliver decided to get in on the fun. The dog jumped out of the boat and swam toward Rizkallah.

Oliver never reached his master's arms.

Wildlife commission spokesman Gary Morse said that in 15 years with the agency, he had never seen a drowning occur because someone tried to rescue an animal. In the past three weeks, it has happened twice.

On May 24, John Patti of Palm Harbor jumped from a boat on Lake Tarpon. Rascal, a Yorkshire terrier, had fallen overboard. Patti, 70, managed to return the dog to the boat before slipping underwater. Authorities found his body the next day.

"These two gentlemen (Patti and Rizkallah) were not in deep water," Morse said. "But a strong current can have an effect on you no matter how strong you are or how well you had previously planned."

Such a current swept Oliver away from his owner, authorities said. Rizkallah, a fitness buff who enjoyed running and working out, swam after the dog. Whether anyone realized it or not, he was already in great danger.

Cochran joined the pursuit, but the current swept out both men.

Another boater saw Rizkallah struggling and threw him a lifeline, the wildlife commission said. He was not able to hold on to it. Morse attributed that to the current and Rizkallah's exhaustion.

A native Palestinian, Isam "Sam" Rizkallah immigrated to the Detroit area in 1970. He moved to Clearwater in 1980 and met Joanna Patterson in 1993. She was impressed by his exuberant spirit of generosity and zest for life. They married in 1995 and lived in Largo. Rizkallah owned a laundry business called Lost Sock.

"He was a wonderful man, son, husband, brother, friend, uncle and great-uncle," said Patterson, 54.

A sales and marketing director for the Hilton Clearwater Beach, Patterson was at a business meeting in Las Vegas when she heard the news. She took a red-eye flight home, arriving at 2 a.m. Wednesday.

She understood how the accident happened. "Oliver saw his dad in the water and went to him," she said.

Rizkallah's body was found an hour later. The District Six Medical Examiner's Office has ruled the death an accidental drowning. Cochran was hospitalized for precautionary reasons.

Oliver survived.

Neither Patti nor Rizkallah had worn a life jacket. Such deaths might be statistically rare, but underestimating a current is common.

"It's hard to second-guess," said Morse. Nonetheless, he offered a few tips to boaters who find that a dog is drifting away in a current.

The best bet, he said, is to catch up to the dog in a boat. "Dogs will generally fend for themselves pretty well," Morse said.

They might even be able to swim out of a rip current. As an alternative to catching a dog in a boat, owners might retreat to shallower water or the beach and call to the animal. For good measure, numerous websites offer animal flotation devices.

Despite her shock, Patterson has found a single thread of consolation.

"He died doing what he loved. Doing what he always did, making others happy, with friends, family and Oliver on the water," she said. "This is all very shocking to everyone. He was a very strong man, and this is just out of nowhere.

"I truly loved this man," she said. "He was my hero and my best friend. He always took care of me."

The death was a second tragedy for Patterson, whose 83-year-old mother was killed in Palm Beach County in 2010 when she was hit by a car while walking her dog. The poodle, Foster, also was killed.

A memorial service for Rizkallah starts at 2 p.m. Saturday at Anona United Methodist Church, 13233 Indian Rocks Road, Largo.

A gathering will follow at 390 Larchwood Drive.

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

Drowning victim loved the sea and the dog he tried to save 06/11/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2014 6:37pm]
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