SEMINOLE — Joe Wright, 74, had known Shawn Thomas since he was a 7-year-old Bible school student at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, picking up and dropping off the boy and his peers as the church bus driver.
Last fall, the little boy who climbed onto his bus every weekday during summer vacation became Wright’s pastor at the same church.
On Friday, when Thomas asked for help, Wright didn’t hesitate.
Hours before, Seminole Fire Rescue responded to a disabled vessel taking on water with occupants onboard on Friday around 2:17 p.m. Deputies found Thomas, 39, and his friend Alexandra Dumervil, 37, in Lake Seminole at 10015 Park Boulevard and brought them both safely to shore, Pinellas sheriff’s deputies said in a media release.
Wright said he was watching the news when Thomas called to ask if he could help him tow his boat back to shore. “Yes, of course.”
After Wright took Thomas back onto the water with his boat, the pastor returned to his vessel, tying a rope between the boats. Wright then saw the other boat flip over and drag Thomas into the water.
“The current was too strong,” Wright said.
Wright tried to pull Thomas out, but his boat propeller was stuck, preventing the boat from moving any closer. By the time he freed the rotor, Thomas was under water.
Deputies received multiple calls around 5:42 p.m. about a man drowning in Lake Seminole, enlisting marine, flight and dive units to search for Thomas, who was not wearing a life jacket.
His body was located at 9:47 p.m., about 10 yards from where he was last seen.
Andy Oliver, senior pastor of Allendale Methodist Church in St. Petersburg and a protest organizer, said Thomas contacted him three years ago and they had bonded in their belief that clergy should be involved in the community’s fight for justice.
“The way I’m grieving most is that there were so many things we were supposed to do together for justice,” Oliver said. “Now I have to double my efforts.”
Wright said he had lost a child in Thomas.
“I’m a Vietnam war veteran and have seen many people die on the field,” he said. “This hurt me more than that.”