Last week he lost his job.
But on Monday, ex-lifeguard Tomas Lopez was given the key to the city by Hallandale Beach officials for risking his job to save a man’s life.
And though he was proud of the shiny gold key, Lopez received an even bigger reward: meeting the young man whose life he helped save.
“It was just amazing seeing him,” said Lopez, who has since been offered his lifeguarding job back, but turned it down. “Everything has come full circle.”
Monday marked one week since 20-year-old Maksim Samartsev was swimming in an unprotected part of Hallandale Beach when he felt something pull him under.
Beach-goers saw the man struggle and stepped in to help.
Marisol Azofra was on the beach with her mother, sunbathing.
“He was drowning,” Azofra recalled Monday. “No one wanted to touch him. He looked afraid.”
She dove in.
A man with a bodyboard already in the ocean paddled over. Together, they got Samartsev on the board and dragged him to shore.
Lopez heard screams from the crowd gathering on the beach and took off running, even though it meant leaving his coverage zone.
He got there as the board with Samartsev’s near lifeless body on it was pulled onto the beach.
A nurse stepped in and began giving Samartsev CPR until the paramedics arrived.
Ivan Samartsev said he was in his apartment in the Hemispheres Condominium when two officers knocked on the door to tell them that his son had been in an accident.
Samartsev said his son is on a three-month vacation from Estonia before he heads off to university and had only been in town for about two weeks when the incident occurred.
“I was so scared,” said the elder Samartsev.
The teen spent several days at Aventura Hospital getting oxygen. His father said he worries his son may have brain damage.
“We just don’t know,” he said. “We have to go back to the doctor.”
But Samartsev said that his son “walking and talking” is a miracle.
And he is so grateful for the heroes who saved his son’s life.
“He is like another son to me,” said Ivan Samartsev of Lopez. “He is part of our family.”
Sitting between his rescuers, Maksim Samartsev was all smiles Monday.
“A big thank you, you saved my life,” he said to Lopez, who had traded in his swimming trunks for a sleek suit and tie for the occasion.
Clutching the white box with his shiny gold key inside, Lopez said he didn’t do anything extraordinary.
“I was just doing my job,” he said.
Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper called the group or rescuers “unsung heroes.”
“That’s what today is about - our hometown heroes,” she said. Those individuals who with no hesitation jump right in and help their fellow man.“
But the company that employed Lopez originally saw it different.
Lopez, 21, was fired on the spot, for ignoring protocol and leaving his station.
Two other lifeguards who defended his actions were fired the next day, and at least three more resigned in solidarity.
After their story got international attention, Jeff Ellis Management Company, which provides lifeguards for the city’s two public beaches and municipal pool, offered Lopez his job back.
He turned it down, saying he would rather focus on his studies at Broward College than return to the $8.25 an hour job.
The city has been critical of Jeff Ellis Management since the story went international. The commission hinted that when the company’s contract expires in September, it would not be renewed.
But on Monday, Jeff Ellis sent a letter to City Hall saying he would not seek to renew the contract.
“I want to personally apologize to the mayor, city commission and citizens of Hallandale Beach for the regrettable incident surrounding the recent termination of our lifeguard employee, Tomas Lopez,” he wrote in the letter. “Knowing that this incident and surrounding negative publicity has distracted you and other officials from dealing with important city business, I want to advise you that we will not seek to obtain future service agreements to manage city aquatic operations for pools and beaches.”
Meanwhile, Lopez said he will place his key to Hallandale Beach next to a key the city of Miami gave his late grandfather decades ago for his role in helping to develop Miami’s Calle Ocho festivities in Little Havana.
“He would be very proud of me,” said Lopez.
Last week he lost his job.
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