Dylan Smith, of the New York borough of Queens, was found Sunday morning floating near his surfboard near the popular resort Maria's Beach near Rincon, police said.
"The same sport -- the sport of surfing -- that he used to save all those people, it's so shocking that he perished that way," said New York Fire Department Chief Michael Light, a family friend.
Smith and 51-year-old Michael McDonnell were honored in People's Dec. 6 issue as "2012 Heroes of the Year" for saving six people from the fast-paced flooding during Hurricane Sandy Oct. 29. The two attached a rope to Smith's surfboard, which they then used to pull the group to safety in the Rockaways, one of the hardest hit areas during the storm, the New York Daily News reported Monday.
Light said Smith was an "absolute hero," but the younger man didn't see it that way in an interview with the Daily News Dec. 15.
"I don't think I'm a hero. Absolutely not. I just did what I was trained to. I'm a lifeguard. I surf. This is what I do," Smith said.
"They certainly deserve to be called heroes," said Jim DiBenedetto, 58, one of the stranded survivors Smith helped to save. "They came in with so much confidence. ... Mike said we were going to tie a rope, and Dylan came out of nowhere with the surfboard and helped people get across the street to safety."