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A rescuer's tale

Army Staff Sgt. Scott Gellin was enjoying Ribfest that night with friends. He just met a woman he was interested in dating.

As she and a friend went to find a restroom, he sat on a blanket to wait. Then he heard the splash.

Peering over the sea wall in Vinoy Park, he saw 12-year-old Stephanie Holler, who had accidentally stepped over the side while dialing her cell phone and plunged into the water.

"What scared me was that there was nothing for her to grab on to," said Gellin, who is stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. "So I got out of my shirt real fast, dropped my cell phone, got a running start and just jumped.

"I remember there were lots of people around," he said. "All over the place. And she was screaming for someone to help her. But no one did anything."

Except Gellin.

He leaped into the inky water Nov. 9 and saved her life. And after he made sure she was safe and unhurt, he simply disappeared into the crowd.

Stephanie never got the man's name, never really had a chance to thank him.

Thursday afternoon, at the spot where they both nearly drowned, Holler and Gellin met again and recalled that night.

At first, Stephanie was kicking and fighting to stay above water. Gellin, 25, told her to relax. He asked her name. He told her his name. Then he promised her he would get her out of there.

But something scared him.

"I thought it was shallow," he said. "I thought I could tell her to just put her feet down. But I didn't hit bottom. It was way over my head. I just said, "Oh, my God.' At that point, it was a survival situation for us."

And he would have to do it alone.

"People were just sitting there, watching," said Gellin, who serves with the U.S. Special Operations Command. "It was dark, she was crying I thought maybe someone would at least dangle their leg over the side so I could grab it and hang on."

Realizing he'd have to find another way out, Gellin noticed the lights of the Pier and considered trying to swim for it. But he had to keep Stephanie's head above the water. And his arms and legs were getting so tired.

So he headed for several boats anchored not too far away. He towed Stephanie about 100 yards and yelled for help. At first, there was no answer. Then someone on one of the boats yelled back that he'd have to swim closer, that they were afraid the boat would run aground.

"It was very close," Gellin said. "When I got to the boat, Stephanie climbed up, but I couldn't make it. They had to put a ladder down for me. I was exhausted.

"I'm just lucky all the military training I've had gave me the confidence that I could do it."

The boat brought the two to shore, and after speaking with police and checking on Stephanie, Gellin saw no reason to stick around. "I just looked at the cop and said, "Have a nice day.' "

Gellin returned to where he was sitting. His friends, including the woman he was interested in, didn't know where he had gone. When he told them what happened, they doubted his story.

"But it was just like in the movies," Gellin said. "A couple who had been at the scene came by and thanked me and told me I was a hero. The girl I was with was totally in awe. We sat together, and she kept me warm until I dried off."

An honest teenager even returned his dropped cell phone and $150 Oakley sunglasses.

Stephanie, a seventh-grader at John Hopkins Middle School, listened as Gellin finished the story. "I think he's pretty cool, too," she said, adding that she's gotten two new nicknames since the incident.

Step-off-me. And Splash.

"Of all the people there that night, I'm so thankful Scott was the one who heard her," said Astrid Holler, Stephanie's mom.

Gellin, who grew up on Long Island, was located after his father read a story about the rescue and called the St. Petersburg Times. Gellin's superiors also have learned about the rescue and have recommended Gellin for the Soldier's Medal, the highest military honor someone in the armed forces can receive during peacetime.

Thursday, the two hugged, talked about that night and exchanged phone numbers. Just before they left, they noticed something resting on the bottom a few feet from the sea wall.

It was Stephanie's cell phone.

"And that," Gellin said, "is how this whole thing started."