ANNA MARIA ISLAND — West Manatee Fire Rescue firefighter Nathan Bergbom held the woman's head above the water and told the other swimmers not to let her go.
A man lying on his stomach on a raft, exhausted and out of breath, had both hands looped beneath the unresponsive woman's arms as two others tried to keep her afloat.
The swimmers had been trapped in a rip current for several minutes before Bergbom arrived, and they were spent. Bergbom noticed one of the swimmers, an older gentleman, was also struggling.
"We need to keep her head out of the water," Bergbom said. "Keep kicking."
Moments later, fellow firefighter Jeff Phillips arrived. He suggested they push the woman onto the raft. After two attempts, the man on the raft fell off. The other swimmers were too weak to lift her.
As they contemplated their next move, lifeguard Geoff Cordes swam up to them with a long board. They were about 50 yards from shore.
"Let me have her," Cordes said to Bergbom as he handed off his 12-foot board. Cordes grabbed the woman and swam her to waiting medics.
Bergbom, Phillips and the three swimmers grabbed the board and began their slow paddle back to shore where minutes earlier, a bystander had pulled the woman's brother from the current.
The woman, 71-year-old Josefina Pardo of Lutz, and her brother, Gerardo Hernandez, both died Thursday afternoon from cardiac arrest, officials said.
Pardo's husband and son, the swimmers in the water who had tried to save her, survived. Their names were not released.
The Pardos had recently returned from a cruise their three sons had bought for them. Hernandez was visiting from Cuba, Manatee County sheriff's officials said.
They all knew how to swim, but even Olympic swimmers are unable to swim against rip currents, said Jay Moyles, chief of Marine Rescue for Manatee County.
A rip current is a strong channel of water that flows seaward from near the shore and pulls swimmers out toward sea.
According to the National Weather Service, more than 100 drownings occur every year in the United States due to rip currents. More than 80 percent of water rescues on surf beaches are due to rip currents.
If you get sucked into a rip current, do not panic, Moyles said. Do not fight it. Try to stay afloat and call for help. Good swimmers should swim lateral to shore and swim out of the current.
The National Weather Service had issued a rip current advisory on Thursday, Moyles said.
The water off Anna Maria Island where the incident occurred is a popular destination for beachgoers. There is no lifeguard on duty on that stretch of beach, which is in city limits.
Cordes, the lifeguard who responded, made his way on an all-terrain vehicle from Manatee Public Beach about 3 miles away.
When Bergbom, the firefighter, arrived, he recognized the terrain instantly. He grew up there and swam in the same spot countless times.
"I had been in the exact same water in the same conditions and never really thought twice about it," Bergbom said. "It's a little humbling."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or [email protected]