MANATEE -- In an emotional reunion Tuesday, Natallie Porter hugged Isaac Espinoza, the 31-year-old Bradenton man who fears sharks yet jumped into powerful currents at Coquina Beach to save her life.
Natallie, 5, was swimming with her half-brother, Lamontea Taylor and other children Saturday about 100 feet north of the wooden jetty at the southern end of Coquina Park when swift currents pulled them toward the jetty, Espinoza said Tuesday.
Espinoza said Tuesday he never saw Lamontea, 6, a Samoset Elementary School student whose body was recovered Monday.
But he saw Natallie struggling and dove in.
"I'm scared of sharks, but I just reacted," Espinoza said. "I remember I heard her brother say, 'Are you really going to dive in there?' I just knew I had to."
Espinoza said he is not a strong swimmer.
"I was carrying her above my
head and gasping for air," said Espinoza, who came to the reunion with his friend, Alexandra Camboni. "When it was over I spit out a lot of water."
The Bradenton Beach Police Department reported Espinoza pulled out three children, but Natallie was his only rescue, he said.
In a tearful scene, Natallie; her mother, Amanda Jones; and her aunt, Sarah Williams, met Espinoza at noon at the Taco Bell on Manatee Avenue West, where Espinoza used to work.
After striding toward the family with a big grin, Espinoza said "Hi" to Natallie and hugged her, telling her how good it was to see her safe. He then hugged Williams, who cried in his arms, and then hugged Jones, who also wept.
Natallie handed Espinoza a bouquet of flowers and a photograph of herself as a keepsake that said: "My hero."
"She will always know him as her hero," Jones said.
After taking the flowers, Espinoza took a St. Christopher medal from around his neck and put it around Natallie's neck for her to keep.
"This medal is what saved me when I went in for you," Espinoza told Natallie.
Williams didn't know who Espinoza was at first but found him on Facebook and asked for a meeting.
The area where Espinoza was relaxing Saturday night is posted for no swimming due to strong currents. Espinoza said he is looking for restaurant work right now and can be reached at 941-807-6993.