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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — April 18, 2021, is a date Antonio Burns will never forget. The Winston-Salem native took his first trip to Kure Beach with his friend and at first it was perfect.

“It was calm, it was peaceful, a beautiful beach,” Burns said. “We weren’t there for an hour — we weren’t even there for 40 minutes — before the situation.”

That “situation” changed everything. Burns first remembers the commotion coming from the water.

“The yelling just didn’t sound like it was pleasant,” Burns said. “The yelling didn’t sound like it was playful yells at all. It was more so, ‘I need help.'”

That’s when Burns noticed two young girls in the water and they were struggling.

“I wasn’t an experienced swimmer, I forgot all about that. I didn’t know about a current rip or anything,” Burns said. “It was like ‘you can do it, you can do it, you got it, you can save those girls.'”

As Burns made his way towards the girls in the water, he briefly met a woman who he’d later learn was Jessica Embry — a 40-year-old teacher from the Wilmington area.

“She said ‘you get this girl, I’ll get that girl,’ and that’s the only words that we ever said to each other.”

Once they reached the girls in the water, Burns realized why they were having so much trouble: They were caught in a powerful rip current.

“Now instead of just fighting against the waves, now it’s like an extra pull on me,” Burns said.

Burns remembers pushing one of the girls toward shore and then wave after wave crashing over him. At that moment, he thought of his dad who drowned 10 years earlier.

“I’m saying help me to a higher power. And I feel like he caught the energy and I feel like that’s what the firefighters came from to save me out of the water. And after that last moment, everything went black,” he said.

Rescuers got Burns to the shore and he was taken to a local hospital for treatment. He spent two days in a coma on a ventilator. After waking up, he learned from Kure Beach police the bittersweet news that the girls survived but Jessica Embry did not.

“I had never been in the Army. I do have family that have been in the Army and they came back physically all right but mentally, they didn’t come back all right.,” Burns said. “I never really understood or knew how they felt, but after that situation, I definitely get to see and experience how it feels to lose a fellow soldier in the field.”

Burns still struggles with the emotional toll from that day and the thousands of dollars in hospital bills. But he said he would do it all over again knowing the girls are OK.

“I would want somebody to do the same thing for me,” he said.

The Kure Beach Police Department issued a statement saying “we commend the heroic efforts and sacrifice made by Jessica Embry, bystanders, and rescuers. Jessica Embry, along with all others involved are credited for saving the lives of the children.”

Burns said he would love to meet the girls he helped rescue if they’re comfortable with that. But if not — just knowing they’re OK is enough for him.

Burns does not have health insurance and set up a gofundme account to help cover his hospital bills. You can find it here.