Pain was carved into the face of the Rev. Jose “Jessie” Perez on Sunday as he tried to talk about watching two close friends die in front of him.
Perez, senior pastor of Rio de Vida Ministries, a Hispanic ministry that meets at Bayshore Gardens Community Church saw church Evangelist Julian Palma, 44, and six-year congregation member Ivan Torres, 29, both go under the water at Lake Manatee just after noon Saturday, and there was nothing he could do.
Perez, Torres and Palma were all at Lake Manatee State Park along with 11 other church men for a weekend camping retreat that started Friday. After a Saturday morning service in nature’s outdoors, four boats hit the lake, with some of the men fishing and some paddling in canoes and kayaks, Perez said.
After about two hours, a 16-foot plastic canoe with Palma, Torres and a third man, Rio de Vida Associate Pastor Juan Gomez, began to cross the lake to where Perez and his kayak partner were fishing.
“My brothers wanted to join us, and there were three of them in that canoe and they started crossing the lake,” Perez said.
At the middle of the lake, a wave capsized the canoe, and all three men went in the water, Perez said.
Gomez held on to the canoe, which was alternately sinking and bobbing up, Perez said.
“Juan was telling them, ‘Don’t leave the canoe,’” Perez said. “The two others left it and started swimming. But they just couldn’t make it.”
Perez believes Palma stayed with the canoe until he saw Torres start to swim.
“Julian saw Ivan go down, and he let go and tried to save him,” Perez said.
Perez and his partner raced toward the two men as fast as they could, but they were paddling.
“I heard them screaming,” Perez said of Palma and Torres, who he estimates were in the water for two minutes. “They were swimming. I turned around and tried to go toward them. We weren’t able to reach them. As we were going toward them, we saw Ivan actually submerge. We were about 100 feet from him and we got closer and Julian submerged also. We were not able to get to them. But we got Juan Gomez. He is with us.”
Torres and Palma were fully clothed except for their shoes, Perez added.
“They did have shoes on but they removed them when they went in the water,” Perez said. “But their clothes got soaked and heavy. I don’t know if they were good swimmers or not, to be honest.”
Gomez, like the family members of the two men, was too distraught Sunday to speak about the accident.
“He is shocked,” Perez said of Gomez. “He saw them, like I did. He is doing the best he can right now.”
The waters of Lake Manatee in the eastern part of Manatee County were rough shortly after noon Saturday, said James Boogaerts, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman.
“The lake was choppy with strong wind,” Boogaerts said Sunday. “We are looking at this as an accident with no foul play involved.”
Perez said the water was not that rough, and the wind was not that strong, but that a big wave evidently came out of nowhere.
“I still don’t know the wave that hit them,” Perez said. “Maybe a boat created one. I know the current was strong because it was dragging us. We were fishing and it was pushing us.”
Both were church leaders
Palma was a highly respected pastor in Manatee County, and Torres had a rock-solid faith, said the Rev. Luis Brignoni, who is pastor of the Hispanic church at The Family Church at Christian Retreat.
“They were both amazing men of God,” Brignoni said of Torres and Palma. “Julian was one of those pastors who practiced what he preached. He had so much love in his heart.”
Palma had been at Rio de Vida, which translates in English to River of Life, for all eight years of the ministry’s existence, Perez said.
“I can’t believe he is gone,” Perez said of Palma. “His generosity, his kindness, his light for God. He would give without having himself. He was our Evangelist. He had the gift of healing. The Lord has used him for a lot of miracles.”
Perez called Torres “a very faithful member of the church who came as often as he could.”
Both Palma and Torres were married and Palma has a large family, Perez said. Palma’s wife is Marivel and his children include three girls and a boy: Elian, Sarita, Crystal and Jessica. Torres’ wife is Mariana.
The Manatee County Sheriff Office’s Dive Team recovered the bodies from the bottom of the lake, according to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission accident report.
No personal flotation devices were used by the three men, and, according to witness statements, there was no safety equipment aboard the canoe at the time of the incident.
Alcohol was not a factor, according to the report.
Both funeral services are still being arranged, Perez said.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help pay funeral expenses for the men. For information about the fund or on donating another way, call the River of Life Ministry, 941-755-3503.