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Man swims five hours to aid family after boat capsizes

Boat capsizes in thunderstorm in dangerous waters of Tangier Sound

By Jonathan Pitts and Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

7:57 PM EDT, July 12, 2013

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A Kent County man swam for more than five hours through the dangerous waters of Tangier Sound this week to seek help for four family members after the boat they were fishing in capsized during a sudden thunderstorm.

John Franklin Riggs III, 46, of Rock Hall left the 16-foot motorboat about 7:30 Tuesday night after several waves swamped its stern, according to a statement issued by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on Friday.

Riggs, a commercial fisherman, reached shore on Deal Island about 1 a.m., knocked on the door of the closest residence to call for help, and was later aboard one of the rescue boats that pulled his father, sister, niece and nephew from the water.

John Riggs, Jr., 70, of Salisbury; Contessa Riggs, 43, of Washington; Emily Horn, 9, of San Francisco; and Conrad Drake, 3, of Washington had been in the water clinging to the vessel for more than seven hours, according to the statement.

All were treated by medical personnel and released.

"Conditions were terrible. It's a miracle they're all alive," said George Nelson, an emergency medical technician with the Princess Anne Volunteer Fire Company who helped pull the four from a DNR rescue boat shortly after 3 a.m.

The elder Riggs was operating the boat three miles offshore in northern Tangier Sound when a storm materialized, according to the statement, causing three successive waves to swamp it from behind.

The water caused the vessel, a Carolina Skiff, to sink partially, then roll over, throwing the occupants into the water, the statement said.

None of the family members returned calls seeking comment Friday, but Nelson said when they came ashore they gave vivid accounts of their ordeal.

The instant the boat overturned, John Riggs III dove below to retrieve life jackets for everyone, then made sure they were secured before he opted to try his desperate swim, according to Nelson.

"He told me he and his sister contemplated what in the world they were going to do: Should he swim?" Nelson said. "It was dark. The weather was bad. They knew no other boats would be coming out there. He decided to make a run for it."

Nelson said Riggs told him his father stayed in the water the entire time, allowing the two children and Contessa Riggs to take turns sitting on top of the overturned boat.

Riggs told Nelson that he stopped several times during the swim to catch his breath by holding onto crab-pot buoys, and when he reached shore at Haines Point, he was so exhausted he couldn't walk. Instead, he crawled to the first home he saw and knocked on the door.

The residents called both 911 and Deal Island Fire Chief Donald Ford.

Firefighters from Deal Island, Mount Vernon and Fairmount in Somerset County and Westside in Wicomico County and a helicopter crew from the Maryland State Police deployed within a half-hour.

State Police Sgt. Michael Mann was aboard the chopper with flight paramedic Pete Spence, who was searching the area with a powerful searchlight.

"Initially, as we were flying along searching, he saw something floating in the water that didn't belong, a rectangular object that grabbed his attention," Mann said Friday of his partner.

Mann trained his night-vision goggles on the object, the two came back around to the spot for a second look, and they could see it was the boat. Two people were holding on.

Mann radioed the fireboats and waited, hovering, until the two got word that everyone was accounted for.

Dr. Matthew Levy, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, said Riggs took a "calculated risk" in trying to swim to shore for help.

Exhaustion, dehydration and hypothermia are very real possibilities on a long swim like that even for someone in good health, he said.

Riggs has run afoul of the DNR in the past — the agency has cited him repeatedly for oyster poaching and other fishing violations.

But on Friday, Capt. Jerry Kirkwood of the Maryland Natural Resources Police heaped praise on the waterman.

Riggs was "directly responsible for saving his family," Kirkwood said.

When Nelson and his partner got the emergency call, conditions were so bad on the water that they prepared themselves for the worst.

When the family members made it to shore, he found that all five had been stung repeatedly by jellyfish but were otherwise simply drenched, cold, tired and glad to be on solid ground.

"[Riggs] must have been thinking of them the whole time," Nelson said. "It's not often you get a happy ending in a situation like this."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com