NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Every day they told each other, “love you more," but now, Shelli Oulliber and her fiancé, Maurice “Reece” Cousins, can never exchange those words again.
The couple had known each other for decades but were never romantically together, Oulliber said. After having separate families, the two reconnected only recently. Their three-year relationship began on the shores of Panama City Beach, which is where they were celebrating their anniversary in May. Then tragedy struck.
“Reece was one of those people when you meet you can’t help but not like,” she remembered of her fiancé. “He just always seemed to know that I needed him, and he was there for me too.”
And Oulliber learned to be true, but in the most painful way possible, when Cousins’ actions saved her from peril, but threw him into it.
“It was just a beautiful day weather was perfect, the waves were probably a foot maybe. They weren’t very high, but it was your perfect beach weather,” she said.
Ouillber said after sunning on the beach, the two decided to cool off in the water. When trying to get back to shore, she said that’s when things went wrong. She had trouble swimming after him, as waves were knocking her down and holding her underwater.
“I didn’t know what way was up, and I remember swimming, and as I swam with him, I was so tired, I needed to just grab onto something,” Ouillber said.
When she surfaced, she saw her fiancé standing in waist deep water. Swimming, she was finally able to reach for him, only for him to desperately try to throw her from the rip current not once, but twice to safety.
“He yelled this time, ‘Swim that way,’ and he motioned swim parallel to the shore when he said that that’s when I realized we’re in a rip current, it’s bad,” she said.
Oulliber struggled through the waves to get back to shore, unable to see exactly what happened to her other half. She kept an eye out, and thought he made it back to safety as two men had him by the arms. But the next glance, her heart dropped.
“I turn around and see they dragged him harder on the beach and they’re doing CPR and all I’m thinking is, ‘I need to get to him,’ and I’m really freaked out at that point," Oulliber recalled. “As soon as I tried to stand up, I tried to walk towards him and my legs gave out and I fell back into the water.”
She crawled back to help give medical care to the man she loved. Now, Oulliber said the memories of those final moments are too hard to repeat.
“Out of all this I learned if he’s going to put himself ahead of me and save me, then there’s some reason why I’m here and there’s something I need to do,” Oulliber said.
Now, she’s giving a warning for beach-goers, hoping to save even just one life, as her fiancé did for her.
“If you’re going to go in the water, a large body of water that can have breaking waves, don’t go in beyond your ankles unless you have something to float on," Oulliber said.
Oulliber said she’ll fight to keep others from suffering the same fate and is finding solace in the little symbols that remind her of the man who saved her life.
“The day he was buried, a blue butterfly landed on his casket. So that’s been my thing, when I see blue butterflies I think of him," Oulliber said. “It may have only been three years, but we lived a lifetime in those three years.”
According to the United States Lifesaving Association, more than 100 people die every year due to rip currents and account for tens of thousands of rescues by beach lifeguards.
Oulliber encourages anyone who plans to go out in ocean waters to bring a flotation device.