LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) — Lori McElligott never envisioned tragedy striking her family in this way.

“If you were to tell me that this is how it would have unfolded, I would have never believed you,” McElligott said.

She said her partner of 26 years — her high school sweetheart, her soulmate — was a strong swimmer.

“He was a strong person. He was just physically fit,” said McElligott.

Courtesy: Tina Kurucz 

Mark Bryson, of Lakeland, Florida, was the “fun” parent to their four children, ages 20, 11, 7 and 3.

“He wanted them to have a childhood that he didn’t have,” said McElligott. “They would hear the garage door open and they would fight to get to him first because it was a race to [get the first hug].”

Last week, the couple surprised their daughter for her 7th birthday with a trip to Daytona Beach.

While McElligott was at a splash pad at their hotel with their youngest child on Friday, the couple’s son and two family friends, in knee-deep water, got caught in a rip current.

“They all started calling for help and without hesitation, [Bryson] got up and he ran to them,” said McElligott.

Bryson helped them out of the water, then lost his own battle with the current.

After being pulled from the water by their adult friend, Bryson was pronounced dead at the hospital.

To McElligott, he is a hero.

“He was not going to lose anybody on his watch, and he didn’t,” she said.

Volusia County Beach Safety officials have been flying the red flag for hazardous rip current conditions for several weeks.

“Even the strongest swimmers get pulled in them. That’s why it’s so important to swim in front of those lifeguard towers. They can actually see you caught in a rip current before you even realize it sometimes,” said Deputy Chief Tammy Malphurs, with Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue.

In the last few weeks, lifeguards have rescued more than 500 people in the 47 miles of coastline in Volusia County.

Due in part to the nationwide lifeguard shortage, the department staffs lifeguard towers based on certain conditions, crowd size and other factors. Volusia County officials urge visitors to download the Volusia Beaches app on their smartphones to find out which lifeguard towers are staffed when they visit.

Mark Bryson and his family and friends were near an unguarded tower Friday. As visitors from out of town, McElligott said there was no indication that conditions were unsafe.

“There was a lifeguard stand, but there was not a lifeguard on duty, so there was a time delay in receiving assistance, and I don’t know if it would have made a difference. I can’t dwell on the ‘what ifs,'” said McElligott.