He heard the screams first. Emerging from the beachfront restaurant where he would sit in the evenings, filing photographs to his agency, photojournalist Santi Palacios was greeted by sounds of chaos and confusion.

Someone couldn't possibly be trying to make the crossing from Turkey to Greece in such bad weather, he thought. The rain had been coming down hard for days, and even the huge ferries that traveled between Lesbos and Athens weren't operating.

And yet now, barely visible in the glow of a car's headlights, Palacios saw them -- a man and a woman, hauling themselves out of the water, the latter falling down out of sheer exhaustion. Each of them clung desperately to a young child.

"When I tried to help her and grab the baby, she didn't let me -- but you could see something was terribly wrong," he recalls to CNN.

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Palacios explains that there is a golden rule that families must never be separated. So after confirming they came together, he wanted to help get the family to a bus stop that would take them to a temporary camp nearby.

"They didn't speak English at all," says the 30-year-old Spaniard. "It was a disaster. They were throwing up, they were in shock. Somehow, with body language, they made us understand that one of their kids had fallen [in] to the water before they arrived."

After dropping the family at the bus stop, the photojournalist and some colleagues went back in search of the child -- to no avail.

"You have a family, who has just lost a baby, completely in shock, in the rain, near hypothermia and there was absolutely nothing we could do.

"That gave me the impression there were horrible days ahead. And we did."