With precious seconds ticking by, Michael Welbaum ran into the murky waters of the canal with his boots still on his feet.
The battalion chief for Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue had just arrived to a frantic scene on the shoulder of Alligator Alley. Witnesses said a sport utility vehicle had blown a tire and veered into the canal. Now it was completely submerged and Welbaum and two of the bystanders were swimming toward some small bubbles gurgling to the surface.
The water, though, was too dark and too deep to save Kevin Livingston, 42, and his 35-year-old wife, Michelle. The couple were on their way home Sunday to Tampa after a Thanksgiving trip to South Florida.
"Everybody was frantic, trying to do something," Welbaum recalled Monday. "You witness something like that, you want to help. But sometimes it's impossible."
• • •
They met in Tokyo through serendipity, the product of his military service and her mother's heritage.
The youngest of three brothers, Kevin Livingston was born in Fort Lauderdale and raised in Tampa. He played varsity football and ran track at Jesuit High School and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1998.
Livingston spent 18 years in the Navy, specializing in intelligence and cryptology. He was stationed on the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, when it rushed to the Middle East after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Brian Livingston, his brother.
Michelle was born in Ubatuba, Brazil, to a Brazilian father and a Japanese mother. They raised her there, but later in life she moved to Tokyo to live near her mother and other family members.
Kevin Livingston was captivated, his brother said.
"She spoke four languages, and he was instantly attracted by her intelligence," Brian Livingston said. "She was very dynamic, being from two cultures, and he found that immensely interesting."
Michelle was happy in Japan but agreed to come to the United States and make a life with Livingston here, his brother said. They married in April 2010, shortly after returning to the states. They lived in Fort Lauderdale while Kevin worked for the U.S. Defense Department and later as an engineer for Apple. They moved back to Tampa last year when Kevin got a job with Zeppelin Systems, a global design and manufacturing firm with an office in Odessa.
Michelle owned a company that sold parts for private jets, Premier Air International. She was working to become a U.S. citizen.
"Considering she didn't initially want to emigrate, for her to make the decision on her own to become a citizen was very meaningful to our family," Brian Livingston said.
The childless couple traveled the country and the world. They still own a home in Fort Laudederdale and their house in Tampa's Forest Hills neighborhood is a short drive from the homes of his parents, Steve and Linda, and his brothers, Brian and Tim.
This year, the couple decided to spend Thanksgiving with friends in South Florida. They left Thanksgiving morning.
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Brian Livingston last spoke with his brother that day so they could wish each other a happy Thanksgiving.
"He was having a great time," he said.
• • •
Welbaum, the Broward battlaion chief, just happened to be driving north on Interstate 75 on the way to a fire station on Alligator Alley when a call came in about a car in a canal. By then, he was already pulling up to the scene.
The car had just gone into the water, bystanders told Welbaum, pointing to a spot in the middle of the canal about 50 feet from the road. One woman was crying hysterically. They pleaded for him to hurry.
He emptied his pockets, put down his radio and jumped in along with two male bystanders. Another firefighter, Noble Watkins, soon arrived and went in, too.
"We couldn't see anything and we couldn't feel anything," said Welbaum, 56.
A Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue diver arrived and found the 2003 Ford Expedition, upside down, in about 30 feet of water. But the diver couldn't access the passenger compartment because the SUV was stuck in about 4 feet of muck, Welbaum said. Crews used a cable and winch to pull the Expedition far enough out of the mud to get inside.
As police officers armed with rifles kept watch for alligators, divers from the Broward Sheriff's Office and Sunrise Fire Rescue Department pulled Michelle from the water, then Kevin. They were both pronounced dead at the scene.
"It's very frustrating not to be able to help somebody," Welbaum said. "If we could have gotten to them we might have been able to do something, but the vehicle sank so fast and it was in such deep water, it was impossible without dive equipment."
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the tread on the Expedition's left rear tire separated, causing Kevin Livingston to lose control. That puzzled Brian Livingston, who had given Kevin the SUV. His brother took meticulous care of the 14-year-old Ford and had replaced at least two tires in the last few months.
"So we're kind of confused about how that could happen," he said.
Sgt. Mark Wysocky, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol, said the agency is still investigating the circumstances of the crash.
As he prepared to fly to South Florida to identify the bodies, Brian Livingston remembered his brother as warm, caring and outgoing, a man who loved his country and made the most of the time he had with a wife as adventurous as he was.
"They were a really great couple," he said, "and really loved their lives."
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.