For nearly five years, Jay Young and Brittany Hudson have texted each other on the fifth of every month.
“Happy 5th!” Jay told her in September 2019. “Hope you have a great weekend!”
“Thinking of you!” Brittany sent in November 2019. “Just looked at the date. Have a great day and I miss you every day!”
The messages may be simple, but they hold profound meaning.
For Jay, the texts are to remind Brittany that every month is a gift.
For Brittany, she is thanking Jay for giving her that gift.
“He saved my life,” Brittany said.
And then became a big part of it.
They were strangers who became family, bound together by a tragedy and Jay’s heroism in the waters off Davis Islands on the evening of Aug. 5, 2018.
“I shouldn’t have been there,” said Jay, 61. “I normally would not have. But I was, at the exact moment that I was needed. Why? I like to think it was the hand of God.”
Comedian Kevin Hart had a Tampa show that Saturday night, Aug. 4. 2018. Jay, a technology services manager at Amalie Arena, volunteered to work as added security to ensure that no one secretly recorded the performance.
Jay, who splits time between Tampa and Jacksonville, regularly woke at 5 a.m. for a walk around his Davis Islands neighborhood but decided against it on the morning after Hart’s show, tired from getting home after midnight.
“I wasn’t going to walk at all,” Jay said. “But as Sunday went on, I wanted to get in my steps. That evening, I took my regular route.”
As Jay neared the corner of Channel Drive and Cayuga Avenue, he saw a 15-foot fiberglass Gheenoe boat moving quickly along the eastern shore.
He watched the side of the boat slam into a piling just offshore, around 20 feet from where he stood.
The pilot flew overboard.
Brittany sprawled on to the deck.
Jay said it looked like the pilot was trying to avoid the piling by veering from it but could not turn fast enough.
Brittany, now 27, has no memory of the accident or what led to it.
But Jay remembers everything.
“I saw Keith [the pilot] go in, so I took off my shoes, jumped down on the rocks and got into the water,” Jay said. “I go down into the water a few times to find him. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Now I’m hyperventilating. I look at the boat and it’s not stopping. It’s circling in 20-yard circles and Brittany is on it screaming.”
Worried something bad was going to happen to the woman on the boat, Jay swam to it. He was cut and nearly went under the propeller as he tried in vain to kill the throttle.
Then Brittany, in a panic, leapt into the water.
“But the boat is still going in a full circle,” Jay said. “When it came back around, the motor hits her, she goes under, disappears, and the boat suddenly stops. I dive under a few times but can’t find her. I grabbed onto the boat to take a breath and I felt a body next to me. It was her, and I realized that her hair was caught in the engine, and she was face down in the water, unconscious.”
He yelled to another man who was swimming out to help, and they pulled the boat ashore along Seddon Channel. Jay freed Brittany’s hair. Tampa Fire Rescue arrived and rushed her to Tampa General Hospital.
Jay said that everything he did that evening was on instinct. “There was no thought, no analysis. I just saw it happen, and I reacted. I don’t know why I did it.”
The heroism did not surprise his wife, Jennifer.
“Everyone we know who has heard the story have said, without fail, that the only person they know who would have done what he did is Jay Young,” she said, “to act without hesitation or concern for himself.”
Following the accident, a Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman told the Tampa Bay Times that they arrived at 5:23 p.m. That’s also the time that Jay’s watch stopped ticking due to water damage. He keeps it on a shelf next to photos of Brittany.
Jay stayed at the scene to answer an investigator’s questions and then, as a storm blew in, walked home in the rain, shoes in hand.
Divers later pulled Keith Rohde, the pilot, from the water. He died instantly from a head injury when he went overboard, records show. He was 22.
Out of respect for his family’s privacy, Brittany would only say she and Rohde were new friends.
According to Times archives, he was majoring in business at the University of South Florida and had worked five years as an attendant at a boat rental company in Tampa. Rhode was 6 feet, 2 inches tall and had been a linebacker at the University of Mount Union in Ohio before transferring to USF.
In the aftermath, Jay felt guilty that his efforts to save Brittany risked widowing his wife and leaving his then-25-year-old daughter without a father.
“If something had happened,” Jennifer said, “while I would’ve obviously been devastated, I would not have been angry or harbored any ill will because it’s who he is and I would’ve been proud.”
Jay spent the night watching the news, hoping for an update on Brittany beyond her condition being critical.
She woke the next morning.
“I had a tube in my mouth and was confused and dazed,” she said. “I couldn’t talk. I thought I was having a nightmare at first. The nurses handed me a whiteboard and asked my name. I couldn’t even think of it at first. I think I tried to write it 15 times before it came to me.”
She then wrote the name and number of her roommate, who contacted Brittany’s mother in Pennsylvania.
On Tuesday evening, Brittany’s mother texted Jay, “I believe you are the brave man that saved my daughter. … Are you OK with meeting at the hospital around 9 a.m. tomorrow morning?”
“That will be perfect,” he replied.
When he entered the room, Brittany said, “we just looked at each other with tears in our eyes. I couldn’t stop thanking him. He held my hand, and it was this emotional moment. I kept thinking, ‘Without this guy, I’m not here. I can’t believe he did that for me.’”
Jay was invited back to her hospital room birthday party the next day. A friend snapped a photograph of the 6 foot, 5 inch and 325-pound Jay hugging the much smaller Brittany. Another photo as posted on Facebook with the caption, “Her hero at her bday party.”
A week later, Brittany was released from the hospital. Jay joined Brittany and friends at dinner. Later that evening, at her request, he took Brittany to the scene of the accident. There, Jay put his arm around her shoulder, and they wept.
Knowing that Brittany’s mother needed to get back to work in Pennsylvania, Jay volunteered to serve as Brittany’s chauffeur, partly because she was so close in age to his daughter but mostly because “it was the right thing to do,” he said.
“I couldn’t drive myself anywhere because of the neck brace,” Brittany said. “It was just so incredible and so nice for this man that I just met to offer to take me to my doctor appointments. He is so selfless.”
He also took her out for meals, to the grocery store, on errands, and helped her smile, often.
“I love sushi so he would take me and make fun of me for trying to eat with chopsticks with a neck brace,” Brittany said. “And he’d take me out for breakfast, and I would order the biggest pancake and he’d laugh at how much I could eat.”
In October 2018, realizing that every fifth day of the month might be a reminder of the tragedy, Jay began the texting tradition to provide affirmation. That was also the month when Brittany’s neck brace was removed and she could drive herself again, but weekly meals with Jay continued.
She got to know Jay’s wife and daughter.
He stayed in contact with Brittany’s parents and grew close enough with her grandfather that they became pen pals.
“My granddaddy loved Jay,” Brittany said. “When he died, Jay sent me a letter that my granddaddy hand wrote to him.”
When Brittany went back to work scheduling medical examinations, Jay got her a second and part-time job selling raffle tickets at the arena to help her earn more money.
On the first anniversary of the accident, Jay and his family took Brittany and her mother out to dinner to help her through that day.
“He never stopped looking out for me,” Brittany said. “He’s one of my best friends. No, he’s family.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I call her my adopted daughter,” Jay said. “She means the world to me.”
In August 2019, Brittany moved back to Virginia to live with her boyfriend Phil Hudson, a high school friend with whom she’d been in a long-distance relationship. She had only lived in Tampa for about a year before the accident.
Jay met Phil the week before while Brittany was at a Jonas Brothers concert.
“We had four hours,” Jay said. “We moved our chairs back to the edge of the water on Davis Islands, had a couple bourbons, had some pizza, and we spoke about our families, our backgrounds and everything else. And in the end, he asked for my approval” of their relationship that was about to get more serious.
Jay had practice answering that question. When his daughter got engaged a year earlier, her future husband asked for Jay’s approval.
He replied similarly to Phil.
“I told him that he doesn’t need my approval, but I respect him, and I like him. And I told him not to hurt her” Jay said, and then added with a laugh, “I’m a big guy at 6 foot, 5 inches but 6 foot, 7 inches when mad.”
Phil proposed in 2021, Brittany said yes, and Jay was one of the first people she told.
He was again near the top of Brittany’s phone call list when she had more good news later that year.
“She told me she was pregnant,” Jay said. “Here was this woman who I once held in my hands and wondered if she would die, and she had come so far. I’m so proud of her.”
Brittany got married in a small ceremony on the beach on Nov. 27, 2021. Only immediate family was there. But, two months later, Jay was invited to a party to celebrate the wedding and pregnancy.
“He drove all the way to Virginia to be here,” Brittany said. “It meant a lot to me and so many people were excited to meet him.”
Her son was born in June 2022. Jay again made the drive to be at his first birthday party.
“I looked at him and said, ‘You know that I wouldn’t have my son and be married to the love of my life if it wasn’t for you,’” Brittany said.
Jay and Brittany next hope to get her son and his first grandchild, born in September 2022, together.
For now, photos of the babies are included in those fifth of the month texts.
On Aug. 5, 2023, the fifth anniversary of the boat crash, each crafted special messages
“It’s been 5 amazing years!” Jay wrote. “I have to say that I am truly amazed by you, from my first contact with you, through your recovery, then to see you moving to Virginia, getting married to an awesome man and starting a loving family. You are a vibrant and resilient young lady, and I am so proud of you and honored to have been a part of your life.”
Brittany replied, “These have been the best 5 years of my life, and thanks to you … I consider you family … You inspire me to be a better person each day. Thank you. Thank You. Thank you again for saving my life 5 years ago today!”
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