Earlier this month Dylan Smith was named one of People Magazine’s “2012 Heroes of the Year” for his heroic rescue efforts during Hurricane Sandy. The 23-year-old surfer from Belle Harbor, New York, helped save six people from ravaging fires in the aftermath of the storm, using a makeshift rope bridge along with his surfboard to get stranded victims to safety on the Rockaway Peninsula.

Tragically, on Sunday, Smith’s body was found floating near his surfboard along Maria’s Beach on the west coast of Puerto Rico. Smith was vacationing there to enjoy the warm water and winter swells near Rincon, one of the most renowned surf breaks on the island, and a favorite escape for East Coast surfers.

Naturally, news of the tragedy has hit Belle Harbor hard. FDNY Chief Michael Light told the Daily News, “The same sport–the sport of surfing–that he used to save all those people, it’s so shocking that he perished that way. …He had a lot of friends, a lot of people who loved him, and it’s a shame that he was taken away from us far too soon.”

On Oct. 29, Smith and 51-year-old Michael McDonnell worked together during their incredible rescue effort. They put their own lives at risk to save six of their neighbors who were stranded on a burning block surrounded by raging water. McDonnell provided the ropes, while Smith supplied the board, and they successfully ferried all six people to safety.

Light, 48, from Battalion 37 in Brooklyn, was emphatic with the Daily News, saying Smith was an “absolute hero” who helped his friends and neighbors during and after the storm.

Yet Smith was very uncomfortable with all the attention in the aftermath. When the Daily News interviewed him on the just 10 days ago, Smith said he didn’t see himself as a hero. “I don’t really see it that way. … I was doing it to help Mike out. I did what I was asked to do.”

McDonnell, along with Smith’s friends and family, is among those in shock. He described Smith as a “Guardian angel in a wetsuit” to the Daily News. Adding, “His calmness and ability to work with me like a team stood out to me immediately, and it was at that moment I knew I had a great person at my side.”

Photo of Dylan Smith courtesy the Smith family archives.