The rows of trees protected Thomas Challis from the 80 mph winds as the airboat cut through the white-capped waves rolling over Shoal Line Boulevard.
Challis and one of his fellow firefighters were making a beeline toward a stuck vehicle. It was about to be submerged by the rising Gulf waters. They could tell at least one person was inside.
Once they traveled beyond the tree line, Challis' face met the hurricane-level wind. His helmet flew off.
"When the wind took it, it went 150 feet into the swamps," said Challis. "I thought, 'Well, there's no way I'm going to get that back."
Challis, a district chief, will retire Thursday from the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District, where he served for 33 years.
One of his firefighters, Adam Justeson, was hiking in the Weeki Wachee Preserve when he peered toward something several yards away from the path. Something was sticking out of the swamp.
He pulled it up and above the brim were the letters C H A L L I S.
Knowing his district chief was retiring soon, he quickly went to work cleaning and restoring his old helmet. Justeson has been with the department for about seven years, long before the infamous "no-name storm" sacked the Nature Coast.
He had heard the stories. Challis said Justeson probably realized how the helmet wound up in the swamp.
One day last week, Challis encountered an excited Justeson.
C'mere, chief," Challis recalled him saying. "I got something for you. I got something for you."
That was when he unveiled the helmet. The rusted shield mounts had to be replaced and it wasn't quite as white as he remembered, but Challis couldn't believe what he was holding in his hands.
He never expected a retirement gift like that.
"It was unique," said Challis.
On March 13, 1993, the Storm of the Century ravaged most of the Eastern seaboard as well as the Florida's Gulf Coast.
It affected the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic differently. Mont Le Conte, Tenn., received more than 5 feet of snow. Washington D.C. was dumped with 2 feet.
Meanwhile in Florida, storm surges submerged coastal lands from the Apalachee Bay in the Panhandle to Apollo Beach.
Hernando Beach, Pine Island and Aripeka might have been the areas hardest hit. Spring Hill Fire Rescue was providing mutual aid that morning. They worked alongside the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, several more fire and rescue agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard.
"Oh, it was a hurricane," said Challis, who was a captain at the time. "We have some stupid rules that say we don't have hurricanes in March, but that was definitely a hurricane."
Debris was flying everywhere that morning, which made Challis more vulnerable to serious injury after he lost his helmet. He said he forged ahead and never thought about it.
At one point, he and another Spring Hill firefighter rescued an elderly man after his house was crushed by a floating 40-foot dock.
The man kept telling Challis his money was inside the house. He searched but didn't find it at first.
The man told him the cash was stuffed in the pages of his ledgers.
One of the other firefighters in the house broke the master bedroom door in half to get inside.
He and Challis discovered the water-logged ledger stacks and got them out of the house. The man had more than $1,300 inside those books.
"It was all the money this old man had," said Challis.
He described the sight of 150-gallon propane tanks floating past his airboat, which was borrowed by the fire district from someone who lived in Hernando Beach.
He saw flames burning at a 90-degree angle from a hair salon near Pine Island. The water was too high for anyone to get there, so the building burned down to the water line, Challis said.
A fire policeman was stuck on a bridge. Challis was there to rescue him.
Rescue units used whatever they could. They were borrowing pontoon boats and jon boats.
In all, more than 100 people had to be rescued that morning, he said.
Challis, now 56, is looking forward to the next chapter in his life.
"I'm ready to be gone, but it feels weird," he said.
He's moving a short distance from Gatlinburg, Tenn. The cabin he and his wife picked out is perfectly placed, they said.
They have a clear view of Mount Le Conte, the same mountain that was pelted with snow by the same storm that nearly drowned the Nature Coast.
As he stared down at his helmet, he turned it over a couple more times.
"This definitely brings back some memories," he said.
His focus turned to those with whom he served.
"It was a good bonding experience," he said of the morning when many could have died, but didn't thanks to the rescue efforts. "It was all of us pitching in and going up against Mother Nature."