Survivors say they got little help from crew

December 16, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

In the minutes before the El Toro II sank in a storm on the Chesapeake Bay, 20 passengers got little instruction or help from the crew as they scrambled for life jackets, launched a life raft and leaped into 8-foot seas, two survivors testified yesterday.

Teresa Shipe, 37, of Mechanicsville, whose husband was one of three people killed in the Dec. 5 accident, described panic on board as the engine quit and water flooded the deck. She testified in a Coast Guard inquiry in Baltimore that she told her husband "he's got to take control" because no one seemed to be in command as the wooden vessel foundered in gale winds and heavy seas about five miles south of Point Lookout.

In nearly two hours of emotional testimony, Ms. Shipe said boat owner Joseph C. Lore "appeared unconcerned for our safety" as he sat in the pilot house monitoring the radio after the engine quit and the boat flooded. "It was terrifying and he was relaxed," she said.

William E. Barton, 37, of Burtonsville, who was more circumspect in his testimony, said that while he considers Captain Clayton S. Lore "an excellent fishing captain," crew members "should be more authoritative and demonstrative" in giving commands to the passengers.

Mr. Barton testified Clayton Lore said "OK, let's do it," meaning abandon ship, but Ms. Shipe said she heard no orders from the crew about when to jump overboard. Both testified that passengers took it upon themselves to cut free a large floating life ring from atop the pilot house and toss it overboard.

Eventually, 16 passengers and all three crew members clung to the ring while floating in the water before being rescued. Three others were taken off the El Toro II's partially-submerged pilot house and one survivor was plucked from the chilly water where he was drifting by himself.

Ms. Shipe said Clayton Lore told passengers to put on life jackets after he checked the engine compartment and realized the engine had flooded and stopped. Mr. Barton, who was standing near the engine hatch, said he remembered no such instructions. The two also differed on who they thought was captain of the vessel that day, Joseph or Clayton Lore.

Ms. Shipe said passengers handed out life jackets from a cabinet that was marked only with a hand-lettered sign. Twice she was handed a child-size jacket. She said no instructions were given on how to don the jackets, but mate Edgar C. Philips Jr. kept checking to make sure all passengers had their jackets on.

Mr. Philips, 19, of Piney Point, died of cardiac arrest resulting from hypothermia after he was airlifted from the accident. Robert B. Shipe, 45, died of the effects of hypothermia at Patuxent Naval Air Station Hospital. Horace I. Smith, 64, of Washington, who had been hospitalized since the accident, died last Sunday night.

Without her husband's help, said Ms. Shipe, "I would never have made it" from the sinking boat to the life float. "He pulled me by my jacket, he said 'We've got to make it to that life ring'. . . It seemed like it took forever." The last time she saw him she was inside a helicopter that had just hoisted her from the water in a basket. Mr. Shipe was clinging to the life float.

The testimony came on the third day of the inquiry, which is being held to find the cause of the accident Dec. 5. Preliminary state and federal investigation has found that three wooden planks on the bottom, port side of the boat's hull pulled loose.

Yesterday's proceedings included discussion of a report by an insurance inspector three days before the accident. Kim I. MacCartney, the inspector, said in a report, the El Toro II "may by the worst Coast Guard inspected boat I have seen."

Mr. MacCartney, who is expected to testify this week, wrote that the boat was not fit to carry passengers. He said in a telephone interview he did not notify his insurance company or the boat owners because he was led to believe the boat would not be going out until the spring.

Coast Guard records show that three inspectors examined the El Toro out of the water on March 25. They looked closely at several planks and fasteners and said they "all looked good." They also found the interior, including planks and frames, satisfactory and noted some deterioration due to electrolysis around a couple of bolts.

"I think it's obvious this tragedy should never have happened," Ms. Shipe told reporters after her testimony. "The boat wasn't seaworthy."

Her lawyer, Philip H. Dorsey, questioned why the insurance inspector failed to tell anyone about the results of his inspection until after the accident occurred.

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