El Toro's captain tells of bay tragedy

December 14, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

There was a little rain that morning, but no wind and no sign of serious trouble on the bay despite the radio weather advisory. Clayton S. Lore, captain of the El Toro II, switched off the weather channel and prepared the boat to set out for a day's fishing from the dock on St. Jerome Creek in St. Mary's County.

"If the weather was real bad out there, I would not be going out there," Mr. Lore told investigators yesterday, as the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board began an inquiry into why the El Toro II sank in high wind and heavy seas on Dec. 5 with 23 people on board.

Including a man who died Sunday night at a Washington hospital, the accident claimed three lives; five people were admitted to the hospital suffering from the effects of hypothermia.

A spokesman for the Washington Hospital Center confirmed that Horace Ira Smith, 64, of Washington, died Sunday night of cardiac arrest. He had been in the intensive care unit since the accident.

The other men killed were the boat's 19-year-old mate, Edgar Curtis Philips Jr., of Piney Point in St. Mary's County, and Robert Bernard Shipe, 45, a passenger from Mechanicsville in St. Mary's County who came fishing with his wife. Mr. Shipe's estate and Mr. Smith were represented by lawyers at yesterday's hearing.

Mr. Lore, 30, who has held a Coast Guard's master's license for 10 years, was the only witness on the first day of what is expected to be a weeklong hearing in Baltimore. It was the first public account the captain has given of the sinking, which triggered an extensive rescue operation involving helicopters, boats, more than 100 rescue workers and every ambulance in St. Mary's County.

Most of the questioning focused on weather conditions during ++ the fishing trip, the maintenance of the boat and safety procedures and equipment. Mr. Lore was business like and spoke without emotion until he told of checking the engine compartment after the motor hesitated en route home amid worsening weather. He stopped, his face flushed, and stifled tears.

"The water was up to the motor," he recalled. "It was up to the air intake."

Minutes later, his father, Joseph C. Lore, radioed a "mayday" message to the Coast Guard. Within 30 minutes all passengers had abandoned ship and the El Toro II was half-submerged in 51-degree water.

Mr. Lore said the boat carried all the approved Coast Guard safety gear, including 59 life vests and a large buoyant metal ring that up to 20 passengers can hang onto by straps. He said, however, that a life raft with a floor would probably have helped, as it would have kept passengers out of the cold water.

He testified that he only occasionally explained emergency procedures to passengers and had not done any review the morning of the accident.

Preliminary reports on the accident point to loosening of three planks on the bottom of the El Toro II's 58-foot wooden hull, amidships on the port side. For some reason, the boat filled with water, the engine failed and the vessel sank about five miles southeast of Point Lookout.

"It was a beautiful morning, except for the rain," Mr. Lore, of Ridge, St. Mary's County, told the panel. Mr. Lore and his father are vice president and president of Chesapeake Bay Fishing Parties, Inc., which owns five boats, including the El Toro II.

About 7:30 that Sunday morning, Mr. Lore said, he listened to the radio weather channel and heard the small craft advisory. He told the panel that he did not consider the El Toro II a small craft.

"It's not like getting into a 20-foot vessel," he said. "It's more seaworthy."

Besides, he said, the creek was "flat calm" and he could see no whitecaps out on the bay. With 21 people aboard, plus a crew of two, including his father, he left the dock about 8:15 a.m., having switched the radio to another channel. Mr. Lore would not have heard the National Weather Service upgrade its advisory to a gale warning at 9:33 a.m.

At the worst of the storm, wind gusted to about 35 miles per hour and seas churned 6 to 8 feet.

On the morning of Dec. 5, The fishing party was bound for an area near Smith Point, planning to patrol waters just south of the Maryland line in Virginia, where rockfish season was still open. In the last few weeks, all reports from that spot promised "great fishing," he said.

Soon after the El Toro II crossed the Virginia border and the passengers dropped their lines, the rockfish started biting. The passengers, he said "were having fun." It was 10:15.

Conditions started turning bad around 12:45. Wind picked up out of the west, and with it came more rain.

Joseph Lore "said 'Let's get out of here,' " Mr. Lore said. "It was just miserable standing in the rain."

Mr. Lore pointed the El Toro II back toward St. Jerome Creek and throttled the single 310 horsepower engine up to about 4.5 knots. That's about half its top speed. He told the investigators he avoided cranking it all the way up to spare the passengers a rough ride. He figured he'd take his time.

He'd been in worse weather on the El Toro II, Mr. Lore said, and was not worried about the condition of the boat. The El Toro II, built in 1961, had been inspected by the Coast Guard in the spring, as it had been every spring for the past three years. The inspectors looked at it in dry dock and found electrical system problems, which were promptly repaired, but no trouble with the hull.

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