A family’s ‘beautifully tragic story’

Peppermans rely on faith as they remember the husband and father who died saving their lives          

 By Bill Brewer

The love of a close-knit family is among the strongest bonds—strong enough to withstand even the grip of a hurricane-strength rip current.

Julie Pepperman is thankful for family. She wouldn’t be here today without them. Her four daughters wouldn’t either.

And sadly, their husband and father isn’t here despite their family’s rescue feats.

Mrs. Pepperman and her daughters have been in the prayers of family, friends, and strangers from around the world who are seeking comfort for the Blount County family following the nightmare that occurred on July 14 in Seacrest, Fla., in seemingly calm Gulf of Mexico waters.

The prayers also are for Fred Pepperman, who died saving the lives of his wife and daughters in a selfless act of love and heroism.

Mrs. Pepperman said she and her girls are leaning on their Catholic faith to help them through this time of almost unbearable grief.

“It’s hard. The grief, and the trauma, and the what-if discussions. Our two youngest girls, Olivia and Grace, are having the hardest time. Grace is the youngest and is so sad that her father won’t be here to celebrate her special days,” Mrs. Pepperman said. The older daughters are Kathryn and Mallory.

July 26 was an especially difficult day for the Peppermans. It would have been Julie and Fred’s 28th wedding anniversary, a date she was looking forward to sharing with the guy she first met as a 16-year-old student at the all-girls St. Mary’s Dominican High School in New Orleans while on a camping trip and he was a 21-year-old on spring break. They both were from New Orleans.

When Mrs. Pepperman was going through personal effects in their home, she happened on a memento that has now become priceless to her. It’s the halves of a parking permit with Fred’s and Julie’s names and phone numbers on them that they exchanged when they met, the only way they would have of cultivating a budding relationship.

She recalls that Mr. Pepperman was smitten and worked hard at getting to know her, even overcoming her parents’ misgivings. Her father refused to let her date at that young age, but Fred – in his red Toyota truck – persisted and eventually won her parents over.

They dated for five years, and when they married in 1991 they honeymooned about a mile from where the family vacationed this summer in the Florida panhandle. It was their favorite getaway spot.

And it will always trigger memories of the longtime love they shared, like so many other places, things, and dates. Oct. 14 will mark the third month since the tragedy occurred.

All the Peppermans, Mrs. Pepperman’s parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, and nieces had gathered for the summer vacation. On July 14, they had congregated on the beach for some fun in the sun and water.

Mrs. Pepperman remembers how her girls had waded out knee-deep in the Gulf of Mexico under good weather conditions. There seemed to be little reason to pay attention to Barry, a tropical storm far out in the Gulf that was threatening Louisiana.

But as Barry intensified into a Category 1 hurricane on July 13 as it made landfall over Louisiana, it was kicking up rip currents back toward Alabama and Florida.

Unbeknownst to the Peppermans, those dangerous currents were roiling toward shore. And with no lifeguards or beach flags to warn of unseen dangers, the tide swelled rapidly and the rip current strengthened. Knee-deep rapidly became chest-deep.

The current first began carrying Grace and Olivia away from shore. Kathryn, the oldest daughter, found herself in trouble, too.

“Our love was used against us. We all went in together,” Mrs. Pepperman recalled, noting that if a family member wasn’t in the water, they were on shore feverishly trying to help those in distress back to shore.

The Florida Gulf Coast has been a favorite vacation spot for Fred and Julie Pepperman and their daughters, Kathryn, Mallory, Olivia, and Grace.

“Everyone was involved. It’s rare that every single member of your family is a firsthand participant in the tragedy,” she said.

In describing the tragic circumstances, Mrs. Pepperman said she, her husband, and the girls were wading just offshore, with their youngest child, Grace, slightly farther out than the others. Second-youngest child Olivia was between Grace and her parents.

She explained that Grace was in the surf up to her knees when suddenly the tide swelled and the rip current began carrying her off. She began yelling for help and Olivia immediately responded and pulled Grace closer to shore, but then Olivia became caught in the unrelenting current.

As the emergency was unfolding, and with no lifeguards on this section of the panhandle beach, parents reacted, but they were in the same rip current. Mrs. Pepperman quickly found herself in distress and called for help, too. As Mr. Pepperman swam over to assist her, daughter Olivia began yelling for help.

“At one point I heard three of my children screaming for help at one time. My husband came over to save me when we heard Olivia calling for help. We looked at each other and Fred went to help save her. Olivia went under and Fred pulled her up by her hair. He was holding a boogie board, and as she went under a second time Fred let go of the boogie board he was holding and pulled her up again and threw Olivia to the boogie board,” Mrs. Pepperman said, reliving the unforgettable moment.

She pointed out, while overcome with emotion, that when her husband threw Olivia to the boogie board, it pushed him farther out into the water and he went under.

“Our oldest daughter Kathryn was in trouble, too,” she noted.

As this dire situation was occurring, a human chain had formed from the beach into the water as family members and bystanders jumped into action to pull the swimmers to safety.

Mrs. Pepperman was rescued by her daughter’s fiancé. Mrs. Pepperman’s sisters and brothers-in-law rushed in to assist, and one of her sisters who is a trauma nurse pulled their father to safety. He was at the head of the human chain and went under water twice.

Despite efforts to rescue Mr. Pepperman, he drowned in the rip current. A bystander pulled him from the water and Mrs. Pepperman’s sister began doing CPR, assisted by others who performed chest compressions. First responders rushed him to Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast in Miramar Beach, Fla., where his death was pronounced. He was 53.

“My dad told me later that night that he couldn’t believe all four daughters were so close to drowning, and that I was so close to drowning. It honestly is a miracle that our whole family, or at least our daughters, didn’t drown. No one can explain how all four girls made it out of the water,” Mrs. Pepperman said.

“In my personal opinion, if God went to Fred and said today is the day you will give your life to save your family, that would have been fine with him. We were all together, and it was in his favorite spot, and he saved all his girls. At least his death had meaning,” she added.

As news of Mr. Pepperman’s heroic act and the improbable rescue of his girls spread in the news and on the Internet, Mrs. Pepperman questioned why there weren’t clear warnings to tourists about the rip currents. She said other water rescues were reported in the same area on the same day.

She described the area where they were staying as a private beach that wasn’t required to fly riptide warning flags. The nearest flag was a quarter-mile away. The nearest lifeguard was two miles away.

The funeral for Mr. Pepperman was held at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Townsend, where the Pepperman family attend Mass. They also attend Our Lady of Fatima Church in Alcoa, where the Pepperman girls have been active in youth programs.

Mr. Pepperman’s survivors have been working through their grief. Mrs. Pepperman, an eighth-grade science teacher at Heritage Middle School in Blount County, returned to her classroom in August as her daughters returned to work and school.

She and her daughters are consoled by a daily devotional with Scripture and by a journal they received from The Paraclete Catholic Bookstore.

And the family is touched by the outpouring of concern and sympathy from friends and church family as well as strangers in other parts of the world who know about the tragic accident from the news.

“People all over the world have been reaching out to us. My sister said it is a ‘beautifully tragic story.’ It’s the love story we had and how our daughters always came first and are such good girls. He (Fred) did the ultimate thing a dad could do, and that touches you,” Mrs. Pepperman said.

“I’ve told the girls to not feel guilty. If it had been any child out there, he would have tried to save them. He was a protector,” she added, explaining that her husband was an equal partner in raising their girls, helping inspire them to do well in school, coaching and cheering them in sports, and seeing to it that they were active in their Catholic faith.

“We were a good team. We went to church together. He wanted the girls to be confident Catholic women,” Mrs. Pepperman recalled, noting that he supported her work as she has pursued a Ph.D. in educational leadership and curriculum development, and he even had a nameplate made that says “Dr. Pepperman” with a note saying how proud he is of her doctoral work.

Mr. Pepperman and a business partner had started a successful business in Blount County called Appalachian Fire Alarm Solutions, and he was a carpenter on the side. Our Lady of Fatima and Knoxville Catholic High School have been among the company’s customers.

The Peppermans have a strong support system to help them through this difficult time, including Mrs. Pepperman’s parents, who also live in Blount County. She and her daughters spent her and Fred’s wedding anniversary on July 26 watching old VHS and camcorder movies of the family.

Mrs. Pepperman knows her daughters will rely on their faith to help them with the loss of their father, including Olivia, who was saved by her dad. “She (Olivia) told me later that she had given up out in the water. She was too tired and was thinking she was going to die. She said the way her dad grabbed her hair twice when she was under water never hurt her. Olivia has a strong faith. She knows Dad went ahead to heaven to prepare for us. She’s sad, but she is going to be OK.”

A GoFundMe page has been set up in memory of Frederick Pepperman III for his daughters to assist with their education at www.gofundme.com/freddy-pepperman.

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