The morning of "June 25 seemed idyllic as Tim Dicus rode the waves off" Miramar Beach, Fla., on his nine-foot surfboard. He noticed sharks nearby, a fairly familiar sight. Then he heard what he calls "not a pain scream—a fear scream" and spotted Felicia Venable, 14, swimming rapidly toward shore. Drawing closer, he saw a spreading pool of red and, floating face down in the middle of it, Jamie Daigle, also 14. Venable made it to safety; suspecting a shark attack, Dicus, 54, resolved to retrieve Daigle. "I wasn't," he says, "gonna let that shark eat that kid."

Hauling Daigle's limp body onto his board, Dicus discovered that one of her legs had been stripped of flesh by the shark. As Dicus—begging the unconscious girl to hold on—tried to paddle to shore, the shark pursued them. "As soon as I cleared the blood pool, he was right behind me," recalls Dicus, who says he struck the beast with his hand "You always hear, 'Pound him on the nose.' Then you look at an eight-foot shark and think, 'What'?' But it worked."

About 50 yards out, Robert Atkinson and Chris White—who swam to the rescue with a raft—met Dicus and brought Daigle to shore. Sadly, it was too late for the honor student from Gonzales, La., who had come to Miramar Beach on vacation with the Venable family. It was the fust fatal shark attack on record in Walton County—the state's first since 2001—and, many thought, an aberration. Then on June 27, 80 miles to the east, blood again darkened the Gulf of Mexico when 17-year-old Craig Hutto of Lebanon, Tenn., fishing in the surf some 60 feet off Cape San Bias, was attacked by a shark that bit into his right femur. His brother fought the fish off and with a friend pulled Hutto to the beach. Doctors amputated his right leg, and at press time his condition was critical, but stable.

The attacks stunned residents of the Florida Panhandle, where shark attacks are extremely rare; most of the state's roughly 30 a year take place in Central Florida. Back in Daigle's hometown, meanwhile, there was only sadness. "Her grandmother warned her to be careful of sharks," recalls Mayor John A. Berthelot. "But no one dreamed something like this would happen."