ST. PETE BEACH — Those who knew her said Samar Aboukhdair did everything for kids, and not just her own.
So when they heard how the 36-year-old died this weekend, it was no surprise that it was while trying to save her children.
The kids survived, but Aboukhdair passed away hours after firefighters pulled her from the Gulf during a dramatic rescue attempt Saturday.
The Lakeland mother went to Pass-a-Grille with her six children and two of her neighbors’, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
All were between the ages of 5 and 13 — "she was a full-time mother," said friend Rahel bat Tzur, 53 — and they set up by the southernmost tip of the beach, near the Southwest Jetty.
Then at about 6:09 p.m., while four of the eight kids were in the water, something went wrong. One started shouting, and onlookers realized the children were stuck in a strong tidal current.
Scott Cooper, 46, happened to be at the beach with his wife, Gretchen, when he heard a child screaming for help.
He said he jumped in, as did another man, to help. Cooper said he was able to pull a boy and a girl to safety. Deputies credited him and three other bystanders — Greg Lynch, Richard Grande and Laura Grande — for helping rescue the children.
Aboukhdair also dove in to try and help.
She was "just trying to hold her baby up," Grande said. One of the mother’s older children also entered the water.
When Aboukhdair’s friends heard what happened, they said it made sense to them.
"When I heard how she died, there was like no surprise at all," Ellen Berrios said.
"She wouldn’t even hesitate — it wasn’t like she was a marathon swimmer, I’m sure she just heard a scream and ran out," said bat Tzur. She and Aboukhdair had become like family, bat Tzur said, and her friend would have tried to save any child, not just her own.
The waters were harsh that day, even for stronger swimmers, Scott Cooper said.
"I know how to swim on a current, and it was more than I could handle, easily," he said. "That’s the worst rip current I’ve ever played around with."
The mother began to struggle as she tried to hold one of her kids above the waves, he said.
St. Petersburg Fire Rescue arrived a few minutes later and pulled Aboukhdair and the remaining two children from the water. Cooper said firefighters attempted to revive her with CPR as her children watched.
Both Cooper and Grande said it was hard to watch.
"Nothing really fazes me too much," said Cooper, who works for the Florida Department of Corrections. "And that did."
Aboukhdair was rushed to Palms of Pasadena Hospital for emergency medical treatment. The Sheriff’s Office reported Saturday night that she was in critical condition.
Her kids stayed with a family friend that night, while their father Salam flew over from Jerusalem to come get them. Aboukhdair was pronounced dead on Sunday morning.The cause of her death is still under investigation.
"She died the same hero that she lived," bat Tzur said. She said her friend was passionate about her family — and kids everywhere.
Berrios recalled Aboukhdair made an anonymous gift of a large stockpile of kid-sized clothes in Jerusalem: "And she asked that it all went to both Jewish and Palestinian children."
Aboukhdair cared about kids everywhere, said Berrios, who lives in Puerto Rico. She became upset whenever she heard of Israeli troops abusing Palestinian children and U.S. officials separating immigrant families.
"That’s where the passion came out," Berrios said.