Scott Luders Jr. and his fiancee, Austin Oliver, spent the Fourth of July swimming and walking on the beach, collecting sand dollars and sea shells at Anclote Island.
That evening, they boarded Luders' father's boat for the return trip to Holiday. As the father guided his 17-foot sea ray bow rider inland, the boat idled about 100 feet from the shore.
Luders, 24, dived off the bow for one last swim.
But the water there was only a few feet deep. Luders hit the sandy sea bottom with his head.
"I couldn't turn my body left or right," Luders recalled from Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. "I was trying to swish my arms so I could flip over and yell to them that something was wrong, but I couldn't."
Luders had shattered a vertebrae and the shards punctured his spinal cord. He became paralyzed from the waist down.
Doctors give him a 5 percent chance of walking again.
Luders, who waits tables at an Applebee's near his home in Virginia, was three months away from qualifying for health insurance through his job.
His father is an unemployed chef who runs a flea market booth in Oldsmar. His family can't pay his hospital bills.
His fiancee is devastated.
"I'm broken-hearted," said Oliver, 20. "He's so full of life, and he can't even move now."
• • •
Luders' parents divorced when he was 2. He lived with his mother in New Jersey and visited his father once a year in Florida. When his mother moved to Richmond a few years ago, he followed.
His father put him in swimming classes when he was 3 years old. As a teenager, he played shortstop on his high school baseball team, and was a running back on the football team. He loves Pink Floyd and Tool.
Earlier this year, he met Oliver through mutual friends.
"We just hit it off," Oliver said. "We've been inseparable."
He and his fiancee flew to Florida on June 29. They swam with manatees in the Weeki Wachee River. On July 4, they bought fireworks to light on their boat trip with Luders' father and his girlfriend, Lisa Button; and Luders' uncle, Michael Luders.
Instead, the fiancee, father and uncle found themselves diving into the water to help Luders. They slowly flipped him on his back so he could breathe above the water. Then Luders had a seizure.
"He said he couldn't feel his legs," Oliver said. "He was crying. He said, 'I'm really scared.' I told him, 'It's going to be okay.' "
Speaking Friday from the hospital, Luders said the pain he's experiencing is sometimes excruciating. He is praying that he regains movement.
"It's definitely overwhelming," he said. "I've got future plans for the rest of my life."
• • •
It's uncertain when Luders will get out of the hospital, or where he'll live when he does.
Scott Luders Sr. is adamant about bringing his son home with him. But the father and the uncle rent a small, two-bedroom house in Holiday that isn't handicap-accessible.
Oliver headed back to Virginia this week to get some of her belongings and move to Florida to be with her fiance.
She's got plans for the fireworks that they never got to light on July 4. "We'll save them for when he gets better," she said, "and have a huge party."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.