When Fred Pepperman pulled his grandmother from her New Orleans home during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, no one was surprised.
“Freddy has been there for many family rescues,” Pepperman’s sister-in-law Colette James told TODAY Parents. “Any time somebody needed him, he was there.”
On Sunday, Pepperman completed his final mission. The 53-year-old died after saving three of his daughters from a riptide in Seacrest, Florida.
The trouble began shortly after the dad of Kathryn, 24, Mallory, 22, Olivia, 20, and Grace, 16, had settled into his beach chair. James, who was vacationing with Pepperman and 17 other family members, was sitting next to him.
“Grace started starting drifting to the left and it was clear she was in trouble,” James told TODAY Parents. As soon as Pepperman realized what was happening, he stood up and charged into the water.
Olivia and Kathryn who were also in the ocean tried to get closer to Grace, but were swept away by the deceptively powerful current.
“We were screaming for someone to call 911,” James said. Though they were at a busy beach and it was late morning, there was no lifeguard on duty. Relatives and bystanders formed a human chain, but the current was too strong.
“Kathryn said, ‘Daddy, help me,’” and he said, ‘I got you,’” James told TODAY Parents. “Those were the last words he told her.”
The business owner from Tennessee was unconscious by the time a Good Samaritan named Russell Hayes pulled him to shore. He was pronounced dead later that afternoon at Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast. Pepperman was one of two drowning victims that day in Walton County, according to a local report.
Double red flags were flying on local beaches that day, but James, who was staying in a rental home, said no one in her group knew what they meant. “We’re from out of town," she told TODAY Parents. “Every hotel and Airbnb needs to put a sign on the door with explaining what each flag means, especially in touristy areas. No family should go on vacation and have this experience when it could have been helped or prevented."
James says she will continue to speak out about the beach warning system, but for now, she is focusing on her family. She recently set up a GoFundMe to help the Pepperman family with expenses.
James' sister, Julie, would have celebrated 28-years of marriage with Pepperman on Friday.
"He was a selfless man," James told TODAY Parents. "A hero."