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This dive for a dog, not a cross

They dived into the chilly waters of Spring Bayou, scrambled to retrieve the prize and emerged feeling exhilarated.

This plunge was Tuesday, two days before the Epiphany Day cross dive in the bayou. And the bounty wasn't a weighted wooden cross, but a 100-pound Labrador retriever.

City workers making last-minute touchups around Spring Bayou saw the black pooch on the loose around 8:30 a.m. They ran the dog down and tied her up, while attempting to call her owner at the telephone number listed on her tags.

But Bella the dog escaped from the makeshift leash.

Workers didn't see what happened next, but they speculated that an alarm at the nearby Craig Park recreation center startled Bella and she jumped into the water. Moments later, they spotted the 3-year-old dog paddling around the bayou.

Problem was, a seawall several feet above the waterline circles the entire bayou.

"It swam all the way across," said horticulturist Jeanne Evans, who was there sprucing up the poinsettias. "There was no way for the dog to get out because of the wall."

Evans and maintenance worker Michael Swits sprang to action, leaping into the bayou to rescue the struggling dog. They pulled her to the seawall and hoisted her atop a kayak, Evans said. Two other city parks workers pulled her up and on to dry land.

By then, Bella's owner Bob Ehmann, 42, of Clearwater heard word of her adventure and arrived from the Sponge Docks, where he works on a party boat.

Bella shook off the water and felt fine.

The city workers dried off and went back to work.

Today another group will dive into Spring Bayou. The 45 Greek boys making the plunge will wrestle to retrieve the handmade cross, said to bring a year of divine blessing.

"I was thinking tomorrow, however, many kids are going to jump in this ice-cold water and get . . . good luck for a year," Swits said. "And here I am jumping in after a dog.

"All in a day's work."