In a matter of seconds Monday, a rip current in the waters off Daytona Beach pulled 4-year-old Joseph Kerr away from shore.
Richard Kerr, 40, of New Tampa swam to catch up, then lifted his youngest son onto his back.
"Don't let go," he told the child.
Joseph rode his father's back for five minutes. The current drove them into the path of a surfer. By then, Kerr was completely submerged but his son was still safe.
Surfer Ramze Zaza, sitting on a 9-foot board, heard two deep-voiced screams and saw Joseph clinging to his father.
"I asked him if he needed help and he nodded his head yes," Zaza said Tuesday.
Rescuers got Joseph back to shore with only a scratch on his forearm, but for Kerr, the outcome was far more grim. Even CPR could not save him, his wife, Lynn, said.
He was pronounced dead at Florida Hospital Oceanside minutes before the family was originally scheduled to leave the beach to return to Tampa.
"It was terrifying thinking I had lost my husband and my son at once," Lynn Kerr said. "My husband saved my son's life. He'll always be my hero."
The family of five went to Daytona Beach on Sunday, stayed overnight in Orlando, visited nearby springs Monday morning, then decided to return to the beach. "They boys had so much fun at the beach we just decided to go back," she said.
All three of her sons could swim, she said, and they stayed close to their parents.
As the current picked up, Lynn was near her oldest son, Jordan, 10, who wanted to get out of the water. They returned to shore where Jarred, 7, was waiting.
She saw two waves crash over Richard and Joseph — and then they disappeared.
"I didn't even know they got pulled out until I was on shore," she said.
Jordan and another beachgoer ran toward a beach patrol vehicle for help. But the surfers were already in the water.
When Zaza, 25, an Ormond Beach nanny, reached the pair, he was shocked to see them in waters more familiar to surfers.
"Just 30 minutes before I saw them, the sky turned dark and the wind was blowing sand so hard it was hurting people," he said. He had already made his nieces go to dry land.
Out on the ocean, he shouted for the other surfers. They were the only ones in earshot.
One surfer took Joseph to shore and another helped Zaza bring in Richard Kerr. Kerr's eyes were open but he wasn't breathing, Zaza said. Foam was coming out of his mouth.
Lynn Kerr said it was her husband's nature to put others before himself.
"You always hear people say they are willing to die for their children, but he died proving it," she said.
They met 12 years ago on a night out in Ybor City.
She had lost her keys. He had called AAA and waited until a tow truck arrived.
Their new friendship grew into a 10-year marriage. She learned that Kerr was originally from Canada but his family relocated to Tampa years ago.
He played tennis at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, but his passion was computers and technology. Kerr taught himself how to repair and network computers. His wife said he made a point of staying up with the technology.
In his computer repair business, Redline Technologies, he was dedicated to giving good service and being fair to clients, she said.
Outside work, Kerr loved being with his boys.
The couple often turned holidays and long weekends into fun times for their trio. They would go to bike trails or roller skating — activities that got the family out together.
Monday, Labor Day, was just another family outing. The boys are struggling to understand its tragic end.
Jordan has pledged to help take care of his younger brothers, his mother said while choking back tears.
Joseph hasn't quite grasped the finality of what has happened, his mom said.
"He keeps saying, 'My daddy is my super hero.' "
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or email@example.com.