Survivors of sinking describe nightmare

December 07, 1993|By Frank Langfitt and Thomas W. Waldron | Frank Langfitt and Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writers Staff writers James M. Coram, Mark Guidera, Ivan Penn and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

As state and federal investigators yesterday began an inquiry into Sunday's sinking of a charter fishing boat in the lower Chesapeake Bay, survivors recounted a harrowing storm-tossed nightmare that claimed two lives.

"I was so tired and I was taking in a lot of water," said Julius Whitman, 62, who bobbed in the wind-tossed bay for about two hours. "Just at the point I thought well, this is it, the sky lit up with the [Coast Guard's] red flashers. Man, was I happy."

Survivors told of how quickly the weather changed. It turned a successful fishing trip, they said, into a blur of seasickness and futile bailing. Finally many passengers were forced to get in the ,, frigid water since there was not enough room for everyone on the life raft.

Both the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are conducting investigations into the sinking of the El Toro II, which began taking on water in a storm Sunday afternoon with 23 people on board. The accident occurred about five miles from Point Lookout at the southern end of Maryland's western shore.

A preliminary report points to the loosening of planks along the bottom of the hull, said John Verrico, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"Some of the gaps between the planks are as wide as 2 inches. We're speculating that the damage was caused by the boat bouncing on the rough seas," Mr. Verrico said. "These gaps appear sufficient enough to make the lower decks fill with water and ultimately sink the boat."

As of late yesterday afternoon, the 60-foot boat was bobbing in the water, mostly submerged, about seven miles east of the Great Wicomico River in the Chesapeake Bay and may not be recovered, officials said.

It had drifted about 10 miles from the rescue site, said Chief Robert Snyder, of the Coast Guard Station at St. Inigoes.

One of the two men killed was the boat's 19-year-old mate, Edgar Curtis Philips Jr., of Piney Point in St. Mary's County. Robert Bernard Shipe, 45, a passenger from Mechanicsville in St. Mary's County who came fishing with his wife, also died.

Three survivors remained in St. Mary's Hospital, including the boat's captain, Joseph C. Lore, 53, and another was in critical condition in a Washington hospital.

At a news conference yesterday, Coast Guard officials would not comment about the boat's safety equipment, nor would they speculate on the wisdom of sailing when heavy winds were forecast.

The case is being handled through the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Philadelphia. Lt. Commander Michael Kearney said the investigation would take several months to complete.

Saturday's drenching rains had slowed to an occasional drizzle by the time the El Toro II pulled away from the dock at 8:15 Sunday morning. On board were Captain Lore and his son, Clayton S. Lore, 30. Twenty passengers, who had paid $27 each, joined three crewmen on the 60-foot vessel.

While the forecast called for partly sunny skies early in the day, the National Weather Service had already alerted boaters of heavy winds and high seas.

Even so, several other charter boats also left the Point Lookout area in search of Virginia rockfish and bluefish.

"The weather was not that bad when we left," said Greg Madjeski, a captain from Smith Creek who saw the El Toro II at midmorning. "If you know anything about fishermen, they want to go catch fish. My group was the same way. They said, 'Let's roll.' "

About 8:50 a.m., the weather service issued a special update, with a gale warning from Point Lookout southward. The update increased the predicted wind strength, to about 40 mph, and warned that waves could reach 6 feet.

"That's a severe storm for the bay," said Jim Belville, chief meteorologist of the weather service's office in Sterling, Va..

The weather service reissued its forecast and highlighted the gale warning at 9:33 a.m.

Despite the forecasts, fishermen might have been fooled by the early morning weather. As the system moved out over the bay, the winds were "really calm" and out of the west, blowing at about 10 knots at Point Lookout, Mr. Belville said.

Meanwhile, the 20 passengers on El Toro II were catching rockfish and bluefish, about eight in all, in Virginia waters where the rockfish season extends until Dec. 19.

Walter Auman, 43, of Owings, who came with his 12-year-old son, Matthew, caught a 42-inch rockfish -- too big to keep under Virginia rules.

About 11:30 a.m., the sky began to darken. An hour later, with the wind and rain pounding the boat, Captain Lore ordered everyone to move into the boat's cabin -- a 6-foot by 15-foot space. "All of us were able to fit in it, but it got hot and stuffy," Mr. Auman said.

"At first the people in the cabin thought that it was fun," said Christopher Falk, 30, of Herndon, Va. "You know, they were yelpin' and stuff," as the 6- to 8-foot waves pounded on the boat.

"Then people started getting sick because of the waves," Mr. Falk said. "About 2 o'clock, the captain looked into the engine compartment and freaked out."

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