SALISBURY — As the front door continued to swing open to the faces of joyless visitors Monday, Steven Tanksley’s family remembered the man they called “a hero.”
“He wasn’t just a hero that day,” his wife Melanie Tanksley said. “He was a hero all along. It’s just something my husband would do — trying to help other people. My husband was always trying to help other people.”
Tanksley, 45, was a family man, his sons said, up to the moment he drowned Saturday afternoon at the “Bull Hole,” now known as RiverPark at Cooleemee Falls.
Tanksley jumped into the muddy rapids to save a man who was crying out for help and a small dog that was bobbing along in the rushing water, witnesses said.
Tanksley had been fishing along the banks of the river with his three sons when the man and his dog fell into the rapids.
Tanksley’s 13-year-old son, Elijah, watched from the shoreline as his father swam to the middle of the river to save the passing dog and became overwhelmed by the flooding waters.
“He took everything out of his pockets. He took off his socks and shoes. He told me to hold it,” Elijah said.
Steven Tanksley made it to the dog, but witnesses said one of Tanksley’s feet became lodged beneath an underwater stone.
“The first time, he had the dog,” Elijah said. “Then his foot was stuck under a rock or something. I only saw one foot moving. His face started bobbing like five times. Then the last time his face got up, he said, “Help.” Then he went straight down and didn’t come up. Me and my big brother started calling him. That’s the last thing I remember.”
His brother, Zaleb, 14, was in the process of catching a ride with a nearby fisherman to head downstream for the dog when he heard the commotion.
“I ran down and jumped in the water. I told them to call 911 — they told me they already called 911,” Zaleb said.
“I started swimming out in the water. It sounded like my dad was talking to me, saying, ‘Zaleb, don’t come any closer. Remember when I told you that if anything ever happened to me to look after your brothers and your mother,’ and then he told me he loved me,” Zaleb said. “I swam back and then got on my knees and started crying.”
Steven Tanksley, a father to five, was born in West Haven, Connecticut, and lived in Florida for a brief time before he met Melanie and the two moved to Salisbury.
They were together 18 years, she said, and married for the last 13.
“He was just such a good guy,” she said. “You couldn’t say anything wrong about, Steve.”
Melanie said her husband was a dedicated father who tried to spend as much time with his kids as possible.
“He would go to the schools and have lunch with the kids. Talk to the counselors about the kids. Just check on them,” she said. “He would take them places and he would be in the street playing catch or soccer with them. Not only with our kids but with kids in the neighborhood.”
Steven worked for a sheet metal company. His wife is trying to get disability benefits after hurting her back at her former job as the manager of a photography studio.
Melanie Tanksley said the family has had its moments of grief since she rode with her pastor to the park Saturday.
One of those was when a coworker of Steven’s stopped by Monday to drop off a black and yellow DeWalt construction bag full of her husband’s tools.
It was about the time Steven would have gotten off work.
But as her door embroidered with the words, “Family — where life begins and love never ends,” squeaked open to loved ones, Tanksley remained upbeat and continually redirected the questions and caring back to the visitors.
One was a 13-year-old named Jaleel, who stopped in to see his friends.
He had known the Tanksleys since they lived near him in Brookview Apartments.
“What was Mr. Steve like,” she asked, “an uncle?”
“No,” the boy replied.“A grandpa.”
Tanksley’s sons said their father left a name that the community respected. They hope to use their father’s values to keep it reputable.
“My dad just left a big name for me to live up to, for me to fill,” Zaleb said. “He always said, ‘Family comes first. Before everything.’”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.
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