Boat with 23 aboard sinks in bay

December 06, 1993|By Peter Hermann and Arthur Hirsch | Peter Hermann and Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writers Staff writers Liz Atwood, Andrea F. Siegel, Thomas W. Waldron and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

Two people died yesterday after a charter fishing boat with 23 aboard took on water and sank in heavy seas in the lower Chesapeake Bay, authorities said.

In a dramatic two-hour rescue operation, all 23 people aboard the 60-foot boat, including three children, were plucked from the chilly, stormy water off Point Lookout in St. Mary's County by helicopters and boats. But some spent up to two hours awaiting rescue in the 50-degree water, said Sgt. Harry Rhule of the Maryland Natural Resources Police.

Eighteen of the boat's passengers and three Coast Guard rescuers were taken to St. Mary's Hospital in Leonardtown suffering from hypothermia; five other victims of the sinking went to Patuxent River Naval Air Station hospital in Lexington Park.

Coast Guard rescuers described the sinking scene as chaotic, with unconscious people floating in the water and three people on top of the cabin huddling together to stay warm as the boat broke apart.

"It's the worst I've had since I've been here," said Tyrone Montgomery, a Coast Guard fireman's apprentice who participated in the rescue. "The people were so cold, they just stared at you."

Robert Shipe, 45, whose address was not known, died of cardiac arrest at the naval station hospital, said a Coast Guard spokesman. Four others were treated and released.

A 19-year-old St. Mary's County resident died of cardiac arrest at St. Mary's hospital despite resuscitation efforts, said Dr. Wesley Page, an emergency room physician. His identity was not released at the request of relatives.

Five others from the boat were admitted to St. Mary's Hospital for hypothermia; they were listed in stable condition. Twelve were treated and released, said Barbara Stepura, vice president for nursing.

One of those admitted to the hospital was the boat's owner, Joseph C. Lore of Ridge.

The captain of the boat, El Toro II, radioed a distress call about 2 p.m., said Chief Robert Snyder of the Coast Guard station at St. Inigoes. The fishing "party" boat operates out of St. Jerome Creek in Ridge, near the mouth of the Potomac River. It reportedly was returning from fishing for rockfish in Virginia waters.

A second distress call was made at 2:14 p.m., said Phil Cooper, safety officer for the Ridge volunteer fire department.

The distress message from the boat, which had departed yesterday morning, said that a plank had come loose and the boat was taking on water, Mr. Cooper said.

It took 50 minutes for a 41-foot Coast Guard boat from St. Inigoes to reach the scene five miles southeast of Point Lookout, said Chief Snyder. It was raining at the time, with waves 6 to 8 feet high and winds gusting to 30 knots.

By the time the Coast Guard arrived, the fishing boat was half-submerged in about 35 feet of water. Three people were on the cabin roof, and some were in a life raft. But others were in the water, which was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit at the time. All apparently were wearing life preservers.

A massive air and sea rescue effort was mounted, with three helicopters scrambled from the Maryland State Police, one from the Coast Guard and one from the Patuxent Naval Air Station at Lexington Park.

"I manned a raft," said Mr. Montgomery, 19, who was treated at St. Mary's for hypothermia. "I picked up some guys that were on the cabin. The seas didn't help out at all. Some of the people had bad conditions. They couldn't cooperate, and they were really cold and really heavy."

Another Coast Guard rescuer treated at the hospital, Mark Wood, 22, said firefighters laid down on victims to transfer their body heat.

"I was scared," Mr. Wood said. "People appeared to be trying to help each other by huddling up. Some people in the water were unconscious."

Mr. Wood said the fishing boat was coming apart when rescuers zTC arrived. "People were crying out," he said, adding that when he and others got to the scene and saw all the people in the water, he thought, "Who do we get to first?"

Two of the people on the boat, a father and his 14-year-old son, spoke only Korean and were from Rockville. Translators called in by St. Mary's Hospital, Woo and Clara Chi, quoted the father as saying, "The fishing was great, and we caught a big one."

Ten of the victims were rescued by helicopter. The rest were pulled out by a flotilla of six boats from volunteer fire and rescue companies in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties.

Twenty ambulances from all over St. Mary's took the sinking victims to the St. Mary's and naval hospitals. Victims of mild hypothermia were given blankets to warm up, but those whose body temperatures had dipped below 90 degrees Fahrehneit were wrapped in electric blankets and fed warm fluids intravenously, said Dr. Page.

The El Toro reportedly has been offering "headboat" charters to catch rockfish in the Virginia waters of the bay. Rockfish season ended last month in Maryland, but continues through Dec. 19 in Virginia.

Chief Snyder said he did not want to speculate on why the fishing boat went out in yesterday's rough weather. "It's up to the captain to decide whether he wants to go," he told Cable News Network. "Maybe when they got under way it wasn't as rough as it turned out to be."

Conditions at the time the boat left dock were not known, but a small craft advisory was in effect by the time the distress call came in.

An investigation will be conducted into the cause of the sinking, said John Verrico, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Point Lookout is about 75 miles south of Baltimore, where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay.

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