Hurricane Ian drowning victim was “the best big brother”

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Craig Steven Markgraff Jr., a construction worker and the “best big brother ever,” was last seen clinging to a tree as rising waters from Hurricane Ian lashed areas dozens of miles inland from Florida’s Gulf Coast.

One of the storm’s first publicly identified victims in Florida, the 35-year-old man’s body was found this week by rescue crews near his home in Zolfo Springs in central Florida, the Hardee County Sheriff’s Office said.

Markgraff was known as “CJ” to many of his friends. But to his sister April Rudolph, he was just Craig, “the best big brother ever.”

“If you ever needed anything, he was right there. He was the protector of the family,” she said from her home in Garden City, Michigan.

Rudolph said her brother split time between Florida and Michigan and was last home in Michigan over the summer. He left his Rotweiller, Rex, with the family while he returned to Florida to wrap up some work, she said. He had planned to return to Michigan.

“He was a construction worker,” she said. “And he built so many of those big fancy houses in Fort Myers,” the area worst hit by Hurricane Ian.

Markgraff was in touch with his mother and aunt last Wednesday as the hurricane was approaching, and he was nervous, his sister said. She said he lived near a creek that was already rising before the worst of Hurricane Ian passed over Hardee County.

“He was at his house, and it was too late to leave,” Rudolph said, adding that she doesn’t know exactly what happened to her brother later that day, and how he ended up clinging to the tree.

But his death has left a huge hole in the family.

Rudolph has started a GoFundMe to help with funeral expenses.

“He loved working on his car, being with friends, hanging out at the beach, and living life to the fullest. His dog Rex was his best friend, and we have him here with us in Michigan,” she wrote.

Markgraff’s body was found Oct. 4 by rescue crews near Zolfo Springs, some 90 miles (145 kilometers) from where the storm barreled ashore on Sept. 28. Markgraff had been reported missing Sept. 29, hours after his father last saw him clinging to a tree in fast-rising water, the Hardee County Sheriff’s Office said.

Markgraff and his father had called on a friend for help after their trucks became stuck, the sheriff’s office said.

Search efforts were hampered by flooding. But the sheriff’s office deployed search crews several times to the area he was last seen, and his body was finally found Tuesday. The medical examiner’s office identified him the next day through tattoos described by his family and through photos on social media. His death was caused by drowning.

Markgraff didn’t fit the pattern of the majority of Florida’s more than 90 victims. At least half of them have been elderly and have heavily concentrated along the southwest coast in the Fort Myers area. The Florida victims have ranged in age from 19 to 96, but more than two-thirds of them were 50 or older.