Karen Butler said the last time she saw her daughter, Courtney, alive was just shortly before the 16-year-old drowned in the Paluxy River during an outing with friends.

On Friday - hours after a search team pulled her daughter’s body from the river’s murky water - Karen talked about the pain of losing her oldest child and the memory of seeing her for the last time.

“There is just so much in my heart, so much that I want to say,” Karen said.

“I saw Courtney just before she went to the river that day,” she said. “She looked so cute. She had two French braids and looked like a little girl who was going fishing. She seemed really happy - and that’s how I’ll remember her.”

The fact that Courtney was happy on the day that she died offers only a slight bit of comfort to the grieving family, who, for three days, waited anxiously for a search team to find her body.

Courtney disappeared in the Paluxy River last Tuesday after jumping in the water to save her boyfriend.

She and a group of friends were playing near a low water crossing on FM 205 when the accident occurred.

Ironically, Karen said the site where her daughter died was “her favorite place in the world.”

“It was her favorite place to go,” she said. “She even celebrated her 16th birthday there last year. She loved it.”

But last week, raging floodwaters from recent storms turned the popular hangout into a dangerous place. The usually calm waters bubbled and raged fiercely, causing a churning and suction effect that proved deadly.

On that fateful day when the group of teens went to the river, they were not planning to swim, Karen said. But Courtney’s boyfriend decided to jump in to take a “thrill ride” down the rapids, and that’s when things went horribly wrong.

When he began to struggle, Courtney jumped in to help him, but was quickly overcome by the force of the water. Friends tried to save her, but she couldn’t be reached.

“She gave her life trying to help someone else - and she didn’t hesitate,” Karen said.

Courtney’s father, Mike Butler, held vigil at the site where the search for his daughter took place.

“He didn’t leave the area until she was found,” Karen said.

An estimated 30 to 40 people combed the river for the missing teen until early Friday morning when volunteers with the Somervell County Fire Department pulled her from the river shortly after 2 a.m. Her body was recovered at Big Rocks, a park located 10 miles away from where she was last seen.

Karen praised those who headed up the search effort for her daughter.

“I appreciate so much the efforts of the search team and everyone who was involved in trying to find Courtney,” Karen said. “They promised they would not stop the search until she was found - and they kept that promise.”

Karen also expressed remorse over the fact that a game warden lost his life while searching for Courtney.

“It’s a double tragedy,” she said. “It’s unimaginable.”

Now, the family of the girl who has been described as someone with “a sweet spirit” and artistic ability will have to cope with a loss too powerful to put into words.

“This was just a terrible accident,” Karen said. “And we are going to miss her for the rest of our lives.”

SARA VANDEN BERGE covers courts, law enforcement, and business and political issues for the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at sara.vandenberge@empiretribune.com. Her work number is 968-2379, ext. 240.