The boy screamed for help and Brian Kowalski, without pause or hesitation, jumped in the water. The former paramedic fought a roaring current to get to the child as his 10-year-old daughter watched from the boat in the waters off Johnson Key.
Kowalski held the boy in his arms. Turn around, he yelled to his friend steering the boat, come get us.
But the motor wouldn't start. A rope was tangled around the propeller. In what may have been his last act, Kowalski, 39, battled to return the boy to safety. Then, he floated away.
Kowalski, who owns a lawn care business in Trinity, was not wearing a life jacket.
That was around 4 p.m. Monday. On Tuesday afternoon, his family said the rescue mission had become a recovery effort.
"Best case, dive crews find nothing," said Michelle Andrews, Kowalski's former partner of 10 years, "and worst … ," she trailed off.
Kowalski moved to Florida in 2002 from Wisconsin, Andrews said. He's a Packers fan and a hard worker. It's in his nature, she said, to jump at the chance to help someone.
In 2003, while Kowalski worked for a lawn company in Tampa, Humera Munir ran out into the street holding a blue infant. She was bathing the baby, according to published reports, and went to answer a phone call. The baby's brother turned the faucet on. When Munir came back, the child was floating facedown in the water. Kowalski performed CPR and after a few agonizing moments, the child spit up and started to wail.
"All I could think about was my 3-month-old," Kowalski said at the time.
Years later, that devotion to his daughter, Erin, took him to the Keys for a father-daughter vacation with some friends. They planned to spend a few days snorkeling and fishing, two of Kowalski's favorite activities.
They woke up around 9:30 a.m. Monday at a resort in Big Pine Key.
"We went out to a beach area and went fishing for a little bit," Erin said Tuesday in a phone interview, "on the Seven Mile Bridge."
They went about a mile into the water out on a boat owned by friend Steve Weirs. The adults took turns snorkeling, and two boys, Jonathan Weirs, 8, and Caden Wolfe, 7, swam behind the boat while holding on to a trailing rope. Caden climbed back in the boat first. When Jonathan tried to pull himself up with the rope, Erin said, it got caught in the propeller, and the current started pulling him away.
"He was yelling, 'Help me! Help me! I can't get to the boat,' " Erin said. "My dad didn't even think and before you knew it, he got in the water."
That's when Kowalski yelled for help. The current was overwhelming him. The boat wouldn't start because of the tangled rope. Erin called 911 and watched her father drift away.
When Jonathan made it back, he described how he felt Kowalski's grip on him slip.
"He said the reason he left my dad was because my dad had been slowly releasing his hands," Erin said. "He said my dad was facedown in the water when he left him but his arms were moving."
The Coast Guard launched two helicopter crews and two small boat crews to search for Kowalski. They searched through the night to no avail. A U.S. Navy helicopter crew, as well as local police boats and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all joined the search as it resumed Tuesday.
Divers went into the water Tuesday afternoon where they thought Kowalski might be, Andrews said. A short time later, they came up empty.
Kowalski's family members are all in the Keys now, fearing the worst, but Andrews said rescuers assured her they would keep pushing.
"They're going 24-7 until they find him," she said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Jon Silman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229. Follow him on Twitter @Jonsilman1.