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Fired Florida lifeguard gets key to city; meets man whose life he saved

Posted at 9:19 AM, Jul 10, 2012
and last updated 2012-07-10 09:19:56-04

By Lateef Mungin

(CNN) — Fired Florida lifeguard Tomas Lopez was honored with the key to the city Monday and got a chance to meet the man whose life he saved.

Lopez made national news last week when he was fired for leaving his post so he could save a swimmer outside his coverage zone at Hallandale Beach.

“It is a big honor. I don’t believe I deserve the key in general. All our guards would have done this,” Lopez told the crowd assembled at Hallandale Beach City Hall on Monday, according to CNN affiliate WFOR. “All I did was what I was supposed to do.”

The incident occurred July 2 at the beach on Florida's Atlantic coast, north of Miami.

A beachgoer rushed to Lopez's lifeguard station to alert him to a man who was drowning.

Company policy said lifeguards cannot go beyond the perimeter of the beach they are responsible for overseeing. The man was some 1,500 feet outside the zone, in an area where signs warn visitors to swim at their own risk.

Even though he was violating policy, Lopez ran into the ocean toward the struggling man and pulled him ashore.

"At that point I knew I was going to be fired. I knew I had broken the rule," Lopez told CNN. "In those cases, we are supposed to call 911 and hope they get there in time."

The company fired him shortly afterward.

At the ceremony Monday, Lopez met the man he saved.

"I would like to say a big thanks to this man. He saved my life," Maksim Samartsev, 21, shaking Lopez's hand and smiling.

Jeff Ellis Management, the company that fired Lopez, later offered him his position back.

"Clearly, he should not have been terminated for what had occurred," Jeff Ellis said last week. "I know that he has tried to do the right thing."

Lopez told CNN he does not plan to return to work at his $8.25-an-hour job that he started four months ago.

"It's another chapter in my life closed and I am just going to continue to get my schooling finished and get on with my career," Lopez said.

Meanwhile, Jeff Ellis Management announced Monday that it is resigning from its job of providing lifeguard service for Hallandale Beach after the controversy. The company had provided the service for nine years.

"I take full responsibility for how this situation was handled by our company," Ellis said in a written statement. "I can't change what happened, but when we took this job I promised accountability. I am taking this action to fulfill my promise."

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