Holding a daughter in each arm, she could feel the world disappearing beneath her.
Nichole Monahan was caught in a wicked current off Honeymoon Island, and quickly realized she could not simultaneously stay afloat while keeping her girls above water.
The fear of death was great, but the realization that her daughters would follow her down was far worse.
This was the moment Alan Hall entered her life. A 65-year-old retiree, he was collecting shells on the beach and heard a family's frantic cry.
Holding her 4-year-old tight, Nichole asked Alan if he could get 5-year-old Ruby to safety. With one arm freed, Nichole began making her way in while Alan and Ruby swam parallel to the shore to escape the current.
Doctors never did pinpoint exactly what happened next. Whether it was a heart attack or simply exhaustion, Alan nudged Ruby and told her she could make it without him.
Instead, the little girl began tugging at his arm, imploring him to follow along. When he slipped beneath the water for the first time, Ruby grew scared and began to swim.
• • •
How do you say thank you to a man who has given you everything? How do you carry on knowing yours is a debt that can never be repaid?
If you are the Monahan family of Swanton, Ohio, you do not wait for a notation on a calendar that suggests a single November day is reserved for giving thanks.
"We talk about Alan often. It's a common name in this house,'' Nichole said earlier this week. "This man saved my life. He saved my daughters' lives. He allowed us to continue as a family, because things would have never been the same without one of our children.
"He gave a second chance to our family, and we try to honor that every day by living our lives with Alan's sacrifice in mind. I just pray we make him proud.''
The story was first told this spring when Alan Hall, who had retired to Land O'Lakes with his wife, Eileen, just five months earlier, died while saving Ruby at Honeymoon Island State Park.
Ruby, along with her sister and 10-year-old brother, had been playing in water no higher than their knees when a strong current swept them away from shore.
Kevin Monahan swam out and caught his son, while Nichole grabbed the girls. Alan Hall, walking the beach with Eileen and their daughter Julie, was the only beachgoer willing to risk the current.
If the story ended there, that would be enough. It would be a tale of heroism and sacrifice, not easily forgotten. But, in some ways, that Easter Sunday was just the start.
The Monahan family, devastated by Alan's death, reached out to the Hall family to express their sorrow and gratitude. And the Hall family reached back with a heartfelt embrace that comforts them all to this day.
"We all felt such horrible guilt at the time. Even now, I'm so sad for Eileen and I'm so sad for Julie. It breaks my heart thinking about them with the holidays coming,'' said Nichole, 33. "But they've been so good to us. They keep saying it was Alan's choice. They say he would have done it all over again even if he knew this would be the outcome.''
A celebration of Alan's life was held in his Connecticut hometown a couple of months after his death, and Nichole, Ruby and Kevin attended.
The Halls follow Ruby and her family on Facebook and thrill at every new picture. The Monahans plan on returning to Tampa Bay in the spring and have made arrangements to meet up with Eileen and Julie.
"Why would we blame the Monahans? They did nothing wrong — the current was that strong,'' said Julie Hall, who has lived in Lutz for a decade. "It would be like blaming my dad for the choice he made, or blaming ourselves for choosing to go to that particular beach on that particular day.
"What my dad did that day? That was the dad I've known all my life. If I was resentful or bitter . . . that would be like dishonoring him. I'd almost be betraying his life and all the things he stood for.''
• • •
She knew him, it seemed, forever. Forty-odd years of laughter, love and all the memories in between.
But then their golden years turned into just a handful of golden months, and now Eileen Hall is learning what it means to live alone for the first time in her life.
A grief support group has helped, but the sadness, she says, can be felt to her bones. Nights are the worst, and birthdays can feel like torture.
Even so, she plans on putting up a Christmas tree, and she and Julie will have Thanksgiving today with friends in New Port Richey.
"I'm trying to remember to be grateful,'' Eileen said.
And so she recalls pictures of a little girl with blue eyes and a face so pure. She remembers the phone call from Ruby out of the blue one summer day.
She thinks about the first time she met Ruby at the hospital early that fateful Easter evening. Julie and Eileen had been keeping vigil by Alan's body when a nurse came in and told them the Monahans were hoping to talk to them.
When the Halls walked into the waiting room, they found a family overcome with grief. Eileen hugged Kevin, who told her he would pray for her every day for the rest of his life. She hugged Nichole who could not stop sobbing.
She looked down at Ruby, who stood with her head bowed.
"I reached under her chin and lifted her head up,'' Eileen said. "I saw this face. This stunningly, gorgeous face. When I saw her I said, 'You are so beautiful. Don't you cry because I am so thankful you are all right.' ''
Not long ago, Ruby celebrated her sixth birthday. It was sad to think Alan wasn't around to see it. But it would have been a sin, Eileen said, if it was Ruby who missed it.
"Knowing Ruby is out there and we're going to be connected really helps us accept this,'' Eileen said. "I'm not saying it's easy, but it helps.''