BRADENTON -- Curtis Oliver, a Bradenton public works employee who maintains Norma Lloyd Park, thought it was just another day at work as he began to take his lunch break on Monday, but the sounds of a screaming child quickly changed all of that.
"A little kid came running up to the shop screaming and yelling for me to help him," said Oliver. "I had no idea what was going on. I presumed it was just kids arguing and finally got him quieted down long enough for him to tell me his brother was drowning."
Oliver followed the young boy around the shop and looked at the bridge crossing the park's wide creek and couldn't quite process what he saw next.
"I saw a little hand sticking out of the water," he said. "Then I saw his head bobbing at the surface and he was spitting out water."
Without any further thought, Oliver ran to the bridge and jumped into the dark water just a few feet from a cautionary sign warning people to stay away from the water due to the presence of alligators.
"I jumped in, grabbed him and pulled him to the bank," said Oliver. "He was hysterical, and it took me about 10 minutes of staying with him and talking to him for him to calm down."
Oliver reached for his phone to call for help, but realized he had lost his cell phone to the creek.
"He was responding to my questions and breathing, so I just stayed with him for a while to make sure he was OK," Oliver said. "He couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 years old. It scared me to see that probably more than it scared him. I just reacted and jumped in. My only thought was to get him out of the water."
Public Works Director Claude Tankersley said the city is replacing all of Oliver's personal belongings that he lost in the water. He also was awarded the city's "Extra Effort" recognition and is being given an extra paid day off from work.
"Curtis has a reputation to be the type of employee to do what he is asked 100 percent, if not better," said Tankersley. "He is a very reliable and popular employee ... and humble, too. He's been a little embarrassed to receive all this attention."
Public Works Section Manager Ricardo Ramos said in his tenure with the city, there was only one other similar incident years ago when a senior citizen at Freedom Village had a scooter malfunction and drove into a nearby lake. A city employee nearby jumped in and pulled the woman from the water.
"It's awesome to have employees that go out of their way to help people as part of their character," said Ramos. "Especially when it involves risking their own lives to save someone else's."
Ramos said the creek water at the center of the bridge is about 14 feet deep. Oliver noted that was about right, "not counting the foot of mud I sank into when I jumped in."
Once the boy calmed down and Oliver was confident he was OK, the two boys left the park on foot without another word. Oliver said the only thing the older brother said was that someone had pushed his little brother into the water, but he didn't see anyone. The parents may not even know how close they came to losing their son that day.
"No one has come by the city and I haven't seen the two boys back here since then," said Oliver. "None of that matters. All I know is that a kid was in the water and I needed to get him out. That's the only issue."
Oliver said it took him quite a while to wrap his thoughts around what happened after the boys left the park.
"I didn't even realize what I had done until I had done it," he said. "And I work here, so I know how many snakes are in that water and I'm afraid of alligators, too. When I got out of the water, I saw a piece of wood floating nearby that scared me to death because I thought it was an alligator. But you just don't think about all those things when you are reacting to something like that."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.