Officials suspend rescue efforts

Experts say it is likely that publisher is dead

June 13, 2006|By NICOLE FULLER, NIA MALIKA-HENDERSON AND ANNIE LINSKEY | NICOLE FULLER, NIA MALIKA-HENDERSON AND ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTERS

The extensive rescue effort to find missing publisher Philip Merrill turned to a recovery mission yesterday as authorities reached a grim conclusion: The former diplomat and longtime boating enthusiast likely drowned during a weekend sail trip on the Chesapeake Bay.

The Coast Guard and Maryland National Resources Police suspended rescue efforts for Merrill, 72, who was last seen leaving the dock of his Arnold home on the Severn River on Saturday afternoon. His 41-foot boat, which he boarded alone, was found unattended off Calvert County five hours later.

After being missing for more than 48 hours, authorities concluded Merrill could not have endured the bay's conditions - 69-degree water, winds from 18 to 33 knots and up to 4-foot waves - for such a prolonged period. Experts said Merrill was likely a victim of fatigue rather than hypothermia.

Recovery efforts were being concentrated in a 25-square-mile area within a section of the waterway stretching from the Bay Bridge in Annapolis to Plum Point, where authorities say it is likely Merrill's body will surface. A fleet of six vessels - one equipped with a sonar device - was being used to search the bay's floor.

"We're going to do everything we can to reach some sort of closure in this incident," said Col. Mark S. Chaney, superintendent of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. "Our folks will be working very, very hard."

The search could take quite some time, Chaney said, depending on currents, tide and water temperature. "A body typically rises at warmer temperatures," he said. "But once a body rises, it could go anywhere."

Merrill, chairman of Capital-Gazette Newspapers who lent his name to the University of Maryland's journalism school, often had a set sailing pattern that took him from his dock in Arnold, up through Asquith Creek, out on the Severn River, then straight across the bay to Kent Island; the round trip is about 18 to 20 miles, Chaney said.

"If he took his normal route, he should still be in this general area," Chaney said of the search area.

Merrill's blue-and-white boat was found 15 miles off course, near Plum Point. A small-craft advisory issued by the National Weather Service warning of high winds and large waves was in effect at the time of Merrill's excursion.

But some experts said that experienced sailors do not necessarily equate a small-craft advisory with danger.

"Most sailors take it as a heads-up, and that is the primary purpose of it," said David Reed, editor of Sailing World, a monthly magazine for boating enthusiasts. "It means get down to the dock and see if [the wind] is at your tolerance level. It is not an extreme thing."

The surface water temperature near the Bay Bridge was between 68 and 69 degrees Saturday afternoon, according to data collected by a Chesapeake Bay Observing System weather buoy, said Tim Koles, a buoy technician with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Doctors and hypothermia experts said a person can survive for several hours in 69-degree seas.

"It is not real cold water," said Dr. Alan Steinman, a former director of health and safety for the Coast Guard. "It is unlikely that it is going to be hypothermia that will be the end point; it will probably be fatigue from fighting the rough seas."

When a person is immersed in water that is colder than body temperature, he begins losing body heat. This becomes dangerous when a person's core body temperature - the temperature of the brain, lungs and heart - falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, Steinman said. A person will start to shiver and, as muscles get colder, a person will lose the ability to grip objects.

When the brain temperature drops, a person loses judgment and, eventually, consciousness, Steinman said.

Steinman guessed that a person could survive for five hours in 69-degree water, but noted that people usually drown because of exhaustion before they die of hypothermia in such temperatures.

Dr. Lorentz Wittmers, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has researched hypothermia for 30 years, said wearing a lifejacket is helpful in slowing hypothermia because it keeps a person's head dry and out of the water. The lifejacket also keeps a person afloat and able to conserve energy.

It is not known whether Merrill was wearing a lifejacket when he apparently fell into the water, but his wife has said that he normally did not wear them when sailing. Wittmers declined to speculate specifically how long a person could survive in 69-degree water but said it would have been "many hours." Age, he said, does play a role in survival times.

"The older you get, the worse your temperature regulation gets," he said.

As the search for Merrill's body continues, Chaney said sonar search efforts would be expanded. By yesterday afternoon, officials had searched about 8 1/2 miles of the bay's floor with sonar.

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