'I didn't care if I drowned': Rescuer recalls harrowing effort to save boy

Verionika Alvarez, 23, went back out to Sylvan Beach Park Friday morning to put out flowers near the water where three siblings drowned late Thursday.
Verionika Alvarez, 23, went back out to Sylvan Beach Park Friday morning to put out flowers near the water where three siblings drowned late Thursday. (KPRC)

LA PORTE, Texas – Veronika Alvarez, 23, went back to Sylvan Beach Park on Friday morning to put out flowers near the water where three siblings drowned late Thursday.

Just before 7 p.m., she and several others, including four siblings and stepsiblings and their parents, were enjoying some time at the beach when chaos ensued.

Family members said 13-year-old Zania Hunter, her brother, 11-year-old Kakai Hunter, and their stepsiblings 11-year-old CJ Hines and 7-year-old Zyon "Ziggy" Anthony were swimming in the water at Sylvan Beach when they found themselves in trouble. Investigators said the children had passed the safety buoys on the beach and had trouble staying afloat. 

The family was a blended one with two sets of siblings. Zania Hunter and Kakai Hunter were brother and sisters who lived with their mother in Houston and CJ Hines & Zyon Anthony were also another set of siblings who lived with their mother, Virginia Anthony, who resides in Indiana.

Anthony said CJ and Zyon were visiting their father in Houston and were supposed to return Friday. CJ survived. CJ's brother Zyon (7) did not make it. Siblings Zania and Kakai also did not survive.

Helping out

“I saw the parents were trying to grab them, but then I saw the mom and the dad go under,” Alvarez said. “I just jumped in the water (and went) straight for the boy who was drowning.”

She jumped into the water and did her best to keep the 11-year-old CJ above water.

“I didn’t know it was super deep where he was,” Alvarez said. “I kept him up, but the current just kept pulling us both down. I just knew to keep him up. I didn’t care if I drowned, I just knew to keep him up."

Alvarez said she felt hands on her as she was trying to keep the boy above water, but she didn’t see the other children.

"I thought the hands that I was feeling were the people around me,” Alvarez said. “I didn’t know there were other kids going down."

She managed to help the boy out of the water, but his siblings did not make it, according to Chambers County sheriff's deputies who are leading the investigation.

Alvarez and the boy she rescued both had to be hospitalized.

Alvarez had bruises on her arms from where the boy was clinging to her and had water in her stomach and lungs from fighting the current. The boy is expected to be OK.

Despite her heroic actions, Alvarez says she is not a hero, she was just doing the right thing. She said she regrets not being able to save the others. 

Virginia Anthony, CJ & Zyon's mother, said she is so thankful for Alvarez' help. She talked to KPRC in tears, explaining her gratitude for Alvarez' brave actions that saved her son CJ.

Remembering the loved ones

Family member Georgia Hunter is helping to coordinate funeral services. She said the family is heartbroken. The children were close and loved each other so much. She said they were good at school and always supported each other. Hunter said the family had moved to Houston a year ago and had planned to move back to South Carolina, where Zania and Kakai Hunter grew up, next week. This trip to the beach was supposed to be the family's last time at the beach before moving.

How you can help

Family members set up a GoFundMe page. However, a local business in La Porte, Mike's Antiques and Estate Sales at 212 W. Main St., had also offered up some of his profits and to collect donations on behalf of the family. The family is very thankful for the help.

"I don't know how someone is able to function after that, and then to worry about the finances, too, and then to go through this without the community showing some love ... They can't do it like that. They can't go through it without the community," owner Mike Henley said.

Call for answers

Commissioner Adrian Garcia visited the park Friday afternoon calling for more open waters-certified lifeguards to work. Garcia said historically, lifeguards work the beach on the weekends. He plans on changing this. He is asking that open waters-certified lifeguards contact his office. He is hoping this will help prevent situations like this from happening again.

He also urged families to be wary of the buoys and asked parents to be very vigilant and careful in the waters.

He offered his condolences to the family.

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