Vernon Lesner and his friends didn't stop to worry about how dangerous the currents in Lake Michigan were Saturday when a woman approached them at Wells Street beach and said a child needed help.
"All six of us jumped up and ran into the water," he said.
Lesner's friend — David Halford, 37, of Hobart — and another man — Kyle Reibly, 26, of Griffith — lost their lives trying to rescue others, officials said.
Lesner, 28, of Hobart, said he and his friends were at the beach for the Gary Air Show, but they didn't know Reibly.
Lesner, Halford and their friend Joe Guzman reached the boy first, he said. It was then that they realized how far from the shore they'd traveled.
They were hit by wave after wave and eventually became separated.
The next thing Lesner remembered was being revived and put on a stretcher next to Halford. Guzman made it close enough to shore with the boy that they were pulled from the water without injury, he said.
"They put Dave straight in the ambulance, and that was the last time I saw him," Lesner said, his voice shaking.
Not 'your typical young man'
Friends this week recalled Halford, the father of three boys, as a hard-working, fun-loving man who was always ready to help others. His death has hit Nate Small's Cut-Em-Up landscaping business hard, because Halford worked there with Lesner and several others. Lesner and Halford also were roommates.
"It didn't surprise me at all when they said he ran out to help," said Small, 33, of Hobart. "It was just how he was."
Halford, who worked for Small for about seven years, was outgoing and had become Small's "No. 1 guy."
Lesner said Halford always made sure they got together during their 10-year friendship. Their house is too quiet without him, he said.
Small said Halford's death has been hard for his mother. Small started a GoFundMe account to help Halford's family with funeral expenses. Any money left over will go to his kids, Small said.
Reibly's father, Donald Reibly, of Schererville, said his son "wasn't your typical young man."
"He was kind of quiet, and he had a small circle of friends," Donald said. "He wasn't like a wild kid who lived on the edge. He stopped by here at the house quite a bit. He was a very respectful kid."
Kyle was never one to judge, and he never lived beyond his means, Donald said. He worked for the School City of Hammond's transportation department, moving buses and inspecting them after day's end.
Donald said his son was at the beach with friends, who told him how Kyle died trying to save others.
"He thought he was very athletic and invincible. He thought he was really strong and a good swimmer and that nothing like this could happen to him," Donald said. "I could see him just fighting to the end."
His son's death came as a shock, because he never thought he had to worry about him, he said.
"Every family has a kid that they worry more about," Donald said. "He just wasn't one of those kids."
Kyle's friend Steven Jenkins started a GoFundMe account for funeral expenses, too, Donald said.
'We accomplished our mission'
Lesner and Small said no one should have been in the water Saturday because of the dangerous conditions.
Workers in the parking lot were warning beachgoers not to allow children into the water and that swimming conditions were dangerous, Lesner said. The National Weather Service issued a beach hazard warning Friday, urging people to stay out of the water.
Gary spokeswoman LaLosa Dent Burns said the city's dive team and firefighters from Gary, Ogden Dunes and New Chicago already were on the beach when a 911 call came in.
Five people were in distress in the water at various times, she said. An 11-year-old boy and 39-year-old woman, both of Gary, were rescued. Lesner said he thought the boy his group saved was 11 years old.
Two Gary police officers attempted to go in the water, Dent Burns said. Police later arrested a man who was antagonizing them about not going in the water, she said. Gary Fire Department divers went in the water for rescue and recovery.
Kyle Reibly's visitation is set for 2 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Schroeder-Lauer Funeral Home, 3227 Ridge Road, Lansing. Services and burial will be private.
Visitation for Halford is set for 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Rees Funeral Home, Hobart Chapel, 600 West Old Ridge Road. A funeral service is set for 10 a.m. Monday at the funeral home followed by burial at Calumet Park Cemetery in Merrillville, according to his obituary.
Lesner, who was back at work Wednesday, brushed off condolences.
"We accomplished our mission. We saved the kid," he said. "I lost a good buddy, but we saved the kid."