It happened in a matter of seconds.
One minute, authorities said, Claudia Meza was in shallow water along a beach east of Shinnecock Canal, her two small grandchildren beside her on a small pool raft. The next minute the two toddlers — a boy named Santy, 3, and his sister Mariana, 2 — had drifted out into Peconic Bay, the panicked grandmother unable to swim well enough to reach them.
It was a scene Monday that could have ended in tragedy. That it didn't was thanks to an alert good Samaritan who commandeered a paddle board and two Suffolk County deputy sheriffs assigned to a marine patrol unit that just happened to be returning to base through the nearby boat channel when the U.S. Coast Guard relayed a distress call.
"Luckily," Deputy Sheriff Thomas Lyons said Wednesday, "we were actually heading back to Shinnecock from patrol down to Riverhead and we heard the call as we were coming around the buoy … And thankfully this quick-thinking guy grabbed a paddle board and was able to get out to them [the kids]. Otherwise, it all could've been worse."
The incident happened off Meschutt Beach County Park, just west of Shinnecock Canal in Hampton Bays, around 5:40 p.m. Monday, the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office said. The two toddlers, both thankfully fitted with life vests, were on what Lyons described as small pool raft, barely five-foot long, when currents and the wind pulled it away from Meza and carried it into the bay.
On the beach there was panic. Bystanders called 911 and the call went to the Southampton Town Police Department, which dispatched a bay constable — and notified the nearby U.S. Coast Guard station. The USCG then broadcast an emergency call to all boaters, which Lyons said he and Deputy Sheriff Joseph Gallo, his partner on Marine 1, heard as they were entering the area.
In the meantime, Meza tried to swim after the raft, Lyons said, but couldn't reach it.
And another bystander, identified as Tony Lemos of Freeport, grabbed a nearby paddle board and made his way out into the bay to try to save the two kids, authorities said.
Video posted to Lemos' Facebook page showed the panicked scene with family members and bystanders shouting — Lemos far off in the Peconic having reached the two drifting toddlers.
Lyons said that he and Gallo and Marine 1 were on the scene "within minutes" and alerted the Southampton Bay Constable, Chris Fraser, who went to get Meza and keep the grandmother from drowning. Lyons said when he and Gallo arrived at the raft they found Lemos hanging on, but unable to fight the current and winds to get the kids back to shore.
The raft was about a-quarter-mile off the beach, Lyons said. That was at 5:45 p.m.
"The brother was three years old and he was like a rock the whole time, just sitting there keeping his sister calm," Lyons said. "She started to cry as we lifted her into the boat. Thank God they didn't fall into the Peconic."
In fact, Lyons said, the water in the area was between 20 and 30 feet deep and the raft had almost entered the channel boaters use going in and out of Shinnecock Canal.
"If a boat had come by with a wake?" Lyons said. "That thing [the raft] would've gone flying. It was a little pool raft, not meant for waves. Had a wave come, it would've capsized."
Once the deputies had gotten Santy, Mariana and Tony Lemos aboard Marine 1 they headed back to a marina in Shinnecock, where the two toddlers were handed over to their grandparents, Lyons said. Authorities said the toddlers and Lemos were all thankfully unharmed.
Attempts to reach Lemos and Meza were unsuccessful Wednesday.
"These little children will remember this day for the rest of their lives, and it's one of those stories that will be retold for generations," Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr., said in a statement thanking both Lemos and his deputies for their prompt response. "I'm glad that Suffolk County Deputy Sheriffs were on the scene, and that between their efforts, the Bay Constable, and the good Samaritan, this whole incident will be fondly remembered."
"It definitely makes you think what can happen," Lyons, himself the father of two teens, said. "Turn your back for a second or lose your grip and all of a sudden your kids are 20 feet away and you can't go after them. Just shows you how fast things can go wrong. Luckily, this guy [Lemos] did a great job — and we just happened to be in the right place."