From beneath a beach umbrella, Charlotte Finelli watched Wednesday afternoon as a small crowd gathered on Folly Field Beach behind the Island Club and pointed at something near a line of breaking waves.
For Finelli, a native of Westchester, N.Y., who has owned a condo at the Island Club for more than 20 years, the sight of tourists gazing out into the ocean was nothing new.
"I thought they were looking at a porpoise or a dolphin," Finelli said. "Then one of the men on the beach turned around and told someone to dial 911. That's when it became clear that something was seriously wrong."
Two men who had spotted a body floating face down in the surf waded out and pulled the body ashore, as Finelli and dozens of other beachgoers behind the resort off Folly Field Road looked on.
"They brought him to shore ... and people started holding hands and praying," Finelli said. "Myself and another woman took our beach towels and placed it over his body until the police arrived. It was very dignified. The first thing I thought was, 'This is someone's family member.' "
The black male in his 30s or 40s was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, which is investigating his death.
An autopsy is scheduled for today at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston to determine the cause of death and his identity, Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen said.
The man was wearing only a pair of swim trunks and a watch, according to authorities and witnesses.
No one matching the man's description has been reported missing recently, and no reports of swimmers in distress have been made in the area, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sgt. Robin McIntosh said.
McIntosh said the man may have been in the water since Tuesday or possibly longer.
As medical examiners work to determine the cause of death, Finelli said it is unlikely she or anyone else on the beach Wednesday will forget what they saw.
"You just never expect something like this is going to happen," Finelli said, her voice trailing off as she stared at the waves. "It's really heartbreaking. Life is so fragile."