TAMPA — They were trying to get back to shore.
Dustin Bush and his three fishing pals felt the rough water, saw the waves stretching four to six feet.
But 11 miles from land, the 22-foot fishing boat's motor failed.
The men tried to anchor. Moments later, the boat capsized.
Dustin swam 250 yards, collecting floating debris and hauling it back to his friends.
"I swam around giving the guys stuff. I gave one of the guys a marker buoy," he said. "And I just tread water."
Dustin kept himself moving, and grabbed 55-year-old Richard Green when the man fell unconscious last April.
He held his friend's head above water for an hour, until a charter boat found them.
"It was just adrenaline," Dustin explained.
Green was pronounced dead. But Dustin is credited with trying to save him, and still saving the two other men.
Ten months later, the Gulf High School teenager walked steadily to the gold-and-black decorated stage among a sea of applause. He had earned top honors in his age 13-18 category at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital's 15th annual Kids Are Heroes awards ceremony.
Situations of tragedy and adversity gave way to a night of hope and excitement Monday.
The hospital's Medical Arts Building Auditorium, filled with star-shaped balloons, a one-man circus, a DJ and dinner, hosted a joyous celebration honoring more than 100 of Tampa Bay's youngest heroes.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, who helped hospitalized children choose the night's winners, shook Dustin's hand. Dustin was handed a trophy. A medal was placed around his neck.
"A lot of the times people look up to us athletes as being their heroes," Stamkos said. "What these kids have done at such a young age — they're real heroes."
An even younger hero found his place of service in the kitchen.
Valrico's Jared Upmann didn't expect his aunt to have a heart attack and for five cousins to become permanent company. Neither did he expect his parents, just months later, to separate.
Jared knew his mom needed more help around the house.
He decided he'd pick up a savory skill and learned to cook. For nine.
After a full school day, Jared opens the refrigerator and turns on the stove.
"I get home from school around 5 (p.m.)," said Jared, the winner in the age 9-12 category. "It's done and cleaned up by 6 or 6:30."
He tries to keep his meals nutritious, his family healthy.
The Mulrennan Middle School student smiles when he dishes his favorite meal.
"Steak and mashed potatoes."
In the age 5-8 category, Connor Rakoczy was looking forward to having spring break off from school.
He had plans to set up a lemonade stand and earn some spending money. Then, he learned a nearby family's house burned to the ground.
Connor revised his business strategy and came up with something easier and ready-made.
For four days he sat outside his neighborhood gate, swapping sticks of gum for coins, or, when drivers learned of his cause, dollars.
"I can do it for the things they need," Connor said.
When it was time to go back to school, the Odessa Elementary student had raised more than $700. Excitedly, he handed the money to the family in need.
The three top winners were accompanied on stage by 110 other heroes, all with extraordinary stories to tell.
"I got to read every story," Stamkos said. "They're all amazing kids. Hopefully this is a great start for each and every one of them."
Sarah Gottlieb can be reached at [email protected]