The incident happened just before 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Little River Park.
Officials said 36-year-old Jeremie Earp was with some friends when he noticed an 8-year-old boy was having difficulty staying afloat in the water.
When the child went under Earp jumped in to help.
He was able to get the child close enough to the bank so that he was pulled to safety.
However, the victim started having trouble swimming and went under the water and did not resurface.
36-year-old man drowns after saving a young child from the water at Little River Park. #Zebulon police say the body here will be taken to Chapel Hill to be examined. Identity of victim is being withheld until the victim’s family is notified. The child is doing well. #ABC11 pic.twitter.com/rDKV6CCuvm— Tim Pulliam (@TimABC11) July 2, 2018
Several people jumped into the water to try and help find him.
After several minutes, he was found and brought to the surface where rescue teams tried to perform CPR but were unsuccessful.
Many are calling the man a hero.
"He jumped in that water," said Shannon Aliff, a woman who came to pay her respects. "I don't know if he knew the child, I don't know if they were related but he jumped in that water and saved that child. That's a total selfless act."
"That man right there did the ultimate sacrifice," Jason Aliff added. "he laid down his life for another human being ... I'm forever grateful and thankful for someone like that."
Zebulon police chief Timothy Hayworth said this was the first drowning at that spot in at least 18 years.
"This portion of water is not a rapid, not a rough area of water, not a deep area of water and most people come down here to fish or wade out in the water," Hayworth said. "It's not known as a local swimming hole. It's more like play area. That's what makes it that more sad. People come here to enjoy their day and relief from the heat and we have a tragedy like this."